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ECUANDUREO, Mexico – The latest in a series of clashes between Mexican authorities and a powerful, fast-growing drug cartel turned into the deadliest confrontation in recent memory, with 42 suspected gang gunmen and one Federal Police officer killed during a three-hour firefight at a remote western ranch.
The battle on Friday followed two other recent unprecedented attacks by the cartel, one that killed 15 state police officers and another that shot down an army helicopter with a rocket launcher for the first time in Mexico's history. The death toll from all three is at least 76 people at a time when the Mexican government claims crime is falling dramatically and the interior minister recently insisted the country "is not in flames."
Black smoke billowing upward from vehicles set on fire during Friday's fighting in the municipality of Tanhauto on the border between Jalisco and Michoacan states could be seen for miles.
Photographs from the scene showed bodies, some with semi-automatic rifles and others without weapons, lying in fields, next to farm equipment and on a blood-stained patio strewn with clothes, mattresses and sleeping bags. Video obtained by The Associated Press showed federal police officers coming under fire and bodies strewn throughout the ranch.
The suspects were members of "a criminal organization whose main operating zone is Jalisco state," National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said. He did not specifically the Jalisco New Generation cartel, but the drug gang dominates the area where the battle erupted and has grown rapidly in recent years to become one of Mexico's biggest organized crime groups.
The gunbattle started when soldiers, federal police and investigators were checking out a report that armed men had suddenly appeared on a ranch, Rubido said. Federal forces on the way to the ranch met a truck full of armed men who opened fire, and when the government force chased the gunmen onto the ranch, they came under heavy fire from others, the security chief said.
"The rest of the presumed criminals on the property started to attack with intensity," Rubido said.
A federal police officer died trying to help a colleague wounded in the shootout.
The federal force called for air and ground support, which included a Federal Police helicopter. The size of the ranch, 112 hectares (277 acres), complicated the battle, which lasted intermittently for three hours in three different locations, Rubido said.
The lop-sided casualty count was similar to a controversial case last June 30 in Mexico state, where the army said 22 alleged criminals died in a shootout with troops, while only one soldier was injured. An investigation by The Associated Press revealed that many of suspects had been killed after they surrendered.
Rubido emphasized that both state and national human rights teams were dispatched immediately to investigate Friday's bloodshed at the ranch, which residents of the area said is called Rancho del Sol.
A police official in the nearby town of Ecuandureo said he didn't know who owned the ranch, which aerial photos show includes a large house and a tennis court. The official did not want to give his name for security reasons. Two other area residents, who also didn't want to give their names out of concern for their safety, said the ranch had operated for at least 15 years growing alfalfa and other grasses for cattle feed.
Rubido said the investigation continued but that so far authorities had detained three people and confiscated 36 semi-automatic weapons, two smaller arms, a grenade launcher that had been fired and a .50-caliber rifle. He said eight vehicles also were confiscated, six of them set ablaze by a fire inside a storehouse that created the black plume of smoke.
The border of Michoacan and Jalisco states is an area dominated by Jalisco New Generation and it has been the scene of numerous incidents of cartel violence in recent years. In the nearby town of La Barca, authorities in 2013 found more than five dozen bodies in mass graves linked to the Jalisco cartel. In 2014, gunmen killed the mayor of Tanhuato.
Jalisco New Generation has mounted several large-scale attacks on federal and state forces in recent weeks.
In April, gunmen believed linked to the cartel ambushed a police convoy in Jalisco, killing 15 state officers and wounding five. Earlier this month, New Generation gunmen shot down a military helicopter with a rocket launcher in Jalisco in a confrontation that killed 18.
In just a few years, New Generation has grown from a small faction of the powerful Sinaloa cartel to one of Mexico's strongest criminal groups in its own right, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains a "black list" of drug trafficking organizations.
New Generation's quick rise reflects a rapidly changing organized-crime landscape in Mexico as the government targets top leaders of established cartels. More than any other criminal group, New Generation has taken advantage of the government strategy, strengthening and grabbing territory as its rivals are weakened.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Ecuandureo and Katherine Corcoran reported from Mexico City. AP writers Maria Verza, Christopher Sherman and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.