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.