MEXICO CITY – Mexico's rough western state of Michoacan, producer of avocados and waves of migrants, is proving just as painful a thorn in the side of President Enrique Pena Nieto as it was for his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Coming off a stunning success with the capture of Zetas cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, Pena Nieto almost immediately was plunged back into the bloody reality of Mexico's drug war this week as gunmen believed to be working for the Knights Templar cartel staged a coordinated series of ambushes on federal police convoys Tuesday.
Attacks continued on Wednesday, wounding at least five federal police officers. The death toll from Tuesday's clashes stood at 20 gunmen and two federal police. About 15 people were injured in the attacks, in which gunmen hijacked trucks and buses to block highways.
Pena Nieto sent thousands of troops and federal police to the area two months ago seeking to regain control of the state from the Knights Templar, just as his predecessor periodically deployed forces to Michoacan, which is Calderon's home state. While residents initially cheered the latest arrival and some recently formed self-defense groups agreed to put down their arms, the calm was short-lived.
The cartel's deep local roots and proven capacity for violence could make Michoacan the graveyard of Pena Nieto's pledge to reduce drug violence.
"They are challenging the Mexican state on an equal footing," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior scholar at Columbia University who studies organized crime in Latin America, noting that in many areas of Michoacan the Knights Templar gang is the de-facto law. "You have state vacuums in Mexico that are not covered by any kind of institutional framework ... and the cartels are moving in to capture pieces of the state."
The government has defended its plan to restore order, even though officials have never made very clear what that plan is.
"We know that for certain we are on the right path to regaining public safety, even though it's quite clear that won't be easy," Michoacan state Gov. Jesus Reyna said after Tuesday's attacks.
So far the government doesn't seem to have a different strategy than Calderon's for the complex, bloody, multi-sided battle in Michoacan that pits the pseudo-religious Knights Templar against police, vigilante groups and the rival New Generation Jalisco cartel. New Generation, which authorities say is aligned with some vigilante groups, is looking to take over Michoacan by casting itself as a cartel interested only in moving drugs and criticizing the Knights Templar for their kidnappings and extortions of everyday people.
Vigilantes tired of crime are fighting back with self-defense groups they call "community police." The emergence of such groups has been one factor in the new flare-up of violence.
"They're ambushing federal police and us, the community police," said Misael Gonzalez, a leader of vigilantes in the town of Coalcoman, one of whose squad members was killed in clashes with the Knights Templar earlier this week. "They're desperate and surrounded."
On Wednesday, dozens of masked gunmen took over the police headquarters in the Michoacan city of Aquila, brandishing assault rifles and wearing white T-shirts with the slogan "For a Free Aquila" — the same slogan that has been used by self-defense squads that have sprung up in a half dozen Michoacan towns since February to try to kick out the Knights Templar.
Aquila city council secretary Regulo Hernandez Chavez said about 40 gunmen had seized the town police headquarters in the pre-dawn hours.
"They took some of the (police) rifles and some of the patrol cars," Hernandez Chavez said. "We're trying to establish communication with them."
Such self-defense squads have arisen in a line of towns along the border with the neighboring state of Jalisco, home to the New Generation gang.
"Every day there are more towns rising up in arms," Gonzalez said.
New Generation, meanwhile, appears to be waging a public relations campaign against the Knights Templar. In a video released in late May, about 50 masked gunmen posed with assault rifles as man's voice said: "We are proud to say we are a cartel ... but we don't kidnap people or extort money from them and that is why we're asking President Enrique Pena Nieto to leave us alone and let us do our work."
Michoacan authorities have said they can't confirm the source of the video.
"They are marketing themselves to the federal government — 'We are only selling drugs ... go after the other guys, who are committing all the violence,'" Buscaglia said.
Pena Nieto's administration delivered its first major blow against an organized crime leader last week, when Mexican marines captured Trevino Morales, the notoriously brutal leader of the feared Zetas cartel. The troops intercepted a pickup truck carrying him and two other men, along with $2 million in cash, on a dirt road in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations.
Yet Pena Nieto has said he doesn't want to target drug lords, which was the strategy under Calderon, and instead will focus on crime prevention and reducing violence.
Former presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, whose father and son both served as governors of Michoacan, said the current situation in the state reflects the same problems under Calderon: a lack of intelligence work.
"Talk to people in any town, and they'll tell you that such-and-such is happening here, and that so-and-so lives behind that hill or over on that farm," Cardenas said. "If they'll tell you that, if they'll tell the doctor or the veterinarian or the farmer or the neighbor, then the authorities should certainly know that."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.