COLONIAS, Mexico – New clashes between vigilante groups and government forces in Mexico's violent western state of Michoacan are calling into question the strategy of a federal commissioner appointed a year ago to restore order.
Top cartel leaders have been captured or killed, and President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration has held up Michoacan as a success in battling drug violence. But now former vigilantes are clashing with government forces and each other. All sides are accused of being infiltrated by drug traffickers trying to take over from the Knights Templar, which controlled commerce, politics and daily life in much of the state until self-defense groups rose up in February 2013.
In the most recent bloodshed, nine civilians died Tuesday during federal operations in the community of Apatzingan.
One was hit by a car while fleeing from federal forces seizing the city hall from armed civilians, and eight were killed later after they allegedly opened fire on a federal police convoy, said the federal commissioner, Alfredo Castillo.
Witnesses and survivors disputed his version. They told The Associated Press the dead were former self-defense group members who were angry that federal police had arrested 44 of their comrades, and that the protesters were armed only with sticks.
Those who died came out of their trucks shouting that they were unarmed, witnesses said.
"They screamed, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot, don't shoot,' many times," said a neighbor, one of six people who spoke on condition of anonymity, either out of fear of reprisal or because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Carlos Vazquez, who during the shooting was in a civilian convoy following the federal police, said former vigilante group members are disillusioned with the government. As vigilantes and then rural police forces, the government had them do its "dirty work" rounding up cartel members but later demanded they turn in their weapons, he said.
"We don't know what's going to happen," Vazquez said near a mural of a gangster-like character with a gun, stacks of dollars and a brick of cocaine, with the Grim Reaper at each shoulder. "We don't want the criminals ... but we don't want the government either. We're tired of their repression, of living this way."
Castillo was brought in to restore peace in Michoacan, which was wracked for years by drug-related violence and then the vigilantes' armed uprising. The government subsequently captured or killed most key Knights Templar cartel leaders, except for the top one, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, who has leaked videos of politicians, journalists and others collaborating with him.
Some have accused Castillo and the government of cutting a deal with Gomez, as the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was known to do in the past. But officials vehemently deny that.
Others criticize Castillo's for using the self-defense groups as public security when they refused to disarm. He turned them into a rural police force, including a special group to search for Gomez. But some self-defense groups remained active and some of the rural forces starting fighting each other, including in a December clash that killed 11 people.
Michoacan Sen. Luisa Maria Calderon, who is expected to run for governor for the rival National Action Party, said Castillo's policies have been erratic.
"You can't resolve disorder with more disorder," she said.
"The state has the monopoly over force, and you can't delegate it to groups of whatever order," she told Milenio television.
Castillo said that organized crime no longer controls Michoacan and that the recent clashes are "social conflicts" over territory, not a sign of deteriorating security. He said all but a few communities are quiet now.
Castillo said Tuesday's violence came after federal forces took control of the city hall in Apatzingan, hub of the conflictive farming region called the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land. The city offices were held since around Dec. 20 by about 100 civilians protesting an increase in electricity costs, and the dismantling of the rural police, according to the families of the dead.
Castillo said the protesters' demands and identities were unclear, but authorities moved in because they were armed. Federal police and soldiers detained 44 people with 13 rifles or shotguns and seized 23 vehicles.
Protesters who escaped said they called the nearby community of Colonias for backup and regrouped in Apatzingan, arming themselves only with sticks. A surveillance video Castillo released shows them beating a federal police car with their clubs.
Vazquez said officers fired directly into a white pickup and shot at a black SUV carrying self-defense group leader Miguel Angel Madrigal and his family.
The AP later counted 23 bullet holes in the white pickup, including through the windshield. Three passengers were killed and two wounded in the pickup, Castillo said.
Five people in the SUV died. They had multiple gunshot wounds and were huddled together under the truck, according to photographs that neighbors took of the scene and that family members authenticated. A rifle lay with the victims of the white truck, along with three bullets that didn't match the weapon. In another photo of the scene, the bodies and position of the rifle were changed.
Witnesses said no shots were fired from the two trucks, though Castillo said spent shell casings were found from ammunition not used by federal police.
Neighbors said they surrounded police after the shooting, complaining about the officers' actions. Investigators told mortuary employees to remove the bodies quickly so the crowd would disperse, said a worker who wasn't willing to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals.
"They didn't take witness statements, measurements, nothing," he said.
Two days later, a baseball cap was still in the bed of the white truck, bearing a bullet hole, blood and a piece of scalp. It was not collected as evidence.