World

Mexican state sees rise in violence as vigilantes and drug cartels reemerge

JUAREZ, MEXICO - MARCH 23:  Military police stand guard at the scene of a murder on March 23, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano all visited Mexico on today for discussions centered on Mexico's endemic drug-related violence. The border city of Juarez, Mexico has been racked by violent drug-related crime recently and has quickly become one of the most dangerous cities in the world in which to live. As drug cartels have been fighting over ever-lucrative drug corridors along the United States border, the murder rate in Juarez has risen to 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents. President Felipe Calderon's strategy of sending 7000 troops to Juarez has not mitigated the situation. With a population of 1.3 million, 2,600 people died in drug-related violence last year and 500 so far this year, including two Americans recently who worked for the U.S. Consulate and were killed as they returned from a child's party.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

JUAREZ, MEXICO - MARCH 23: Military police stand guard at the scene of a murder on March 23, 2010 in Juarez, Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano all visited Mexico on today for discussions centered on Mexico's endemic drug-related violence. The border city of Juarez, Mexico has been racked by violent drug-related crime recently and has quickly become one of the most dangerous cities in the world in which to live. As drug cartels have been fighting over ever-lucrative drug corridors along the United States border, the murder rate in Juarez has risen to 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents. President Felipe Calderon's strategy of sending 7000 troops to Juarez has not mitigated the situation. With a population of 1.3 million, 2,600 people died in drug-related violence last year and 500 so far this year, including two Americans recently who worked for the U.S. Consulate and were killed as they returned from a child's party. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2010 Getty Images)

The body count continues to rise in the violent Mexican state of Michoacán as five more members of the so-called vigilante "self-defense" group were killed over the weekend, bringing the death toll to least 25 people killed in the last month due to ambushes, raids and attacks by vigilantes, drug traffickers, civilians and the army and federal police.

Five members of a vigilante-style community police force were killed late Sunday in an ambush in western Mexico, authorities and members of the group said.

Luz Sandoval, a member of the "community police" movement in the Michoacán state mountain town of Aquila, said Monday that 13 members of the group were on patrol when they were attacked on Sunday.

"The colleagues had gone to patrol the area, because that is where masked men had been sighted," said Sandoval. Unidentified assailants opened fire on them in a rural area, killing five and wounding eight, the state prosecutors' office said in a statement.

"The truck (the vigilantes were travelling in) was full of bullet holes," Sandoval said. "We still don't know who attacked them. It could have been Templars or ex-Templars."

To counter the violence spiraling out of control and counter the rouge vigilante groups operating in the state, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sent federal troops to Michoacán last year and appointed longtime aide Alfredo Castillo as federal commissioner for the area. Castillo’s plan was to convert the vigilante groups into a rural police force, but the results have been mixed.

Michoacán is a patchwork of drug gang members and self-defense vigilante groups that rose up in 2013 to fight the dominant Knights Templar cartel. There also have been accusations that former cartel gunmen have infiltrated vigilante groups and they are then recruited into the government-sponsored rural police force.

Aquila, a county of about 25,000 people, has been a point of conflict because the Knights Templar had been illegally exploiting the town's iron ore mines.

The Michoacán prosecutor's office said Monday it had seized 20 properties owned by leaders of the cartel, including five properties that belonged to the gang's deceased leader, Nazario Moreno González. It said it also seized seven horses and three vehicles. While many top leaders of the Knights Templar cartel have been captured or killed in the year since Castillo took over, some remain at large.

This weekend’s violence comes soon after eight people – mostly civilians – were killed during a confrontation with federal police.

Castillo on Monday gave a third government version of what happened Jan. 6 when civilians in pickup trucks tried to stop a federal police convoy in Apatzingan, hub of the conflictive Michoacán farming region called the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land.

First, he reported last week they were killed after firing on the military. Then he said they fired on the federal police and, finally, that they were killed by their own men firing at police. He said all but two women among the dead had residue indicating they fired guns, even though witnesses said they were unarmed and came out of the trucks saying "Don't shoot."

Ballistics tests show that all of the eight were hit by bullets not used by the federal police, he said. Only two of the dead also had been shot by police, Castillo said, but added it was impossible to determine whether police or civilians issued the fatal wounds.

A total of nine people died that day. One was hit by a car while fleeing from federal forces seizing the city hall that was taken over by about 100 civilians protesting an increase in electricity costs, and the government requiring that they turn in their arms, according to the families of the dead.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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