Violent Standoff in Mexican State Kills Five

Federal authorities battled with suspected drug cartel members in a Western state, a prolonged shoot-out left roads blocked and five people, including a baby, dead.

The tense standoff between police and suspected members of La Familia in Morelia may have claimed the life of suspected drug members, including one of its top leaders.

"The way the criminals have tried to protect themselves as they fled from our operations yesterday and today suggests that we have located and are closely pursuing high-level leaders of La Familia Michoacana," Poire said. "Similarly, preliminary unconfirmed information indicates that in their retreat, the organization has suffered significant causalities, including possibly the death of one of their leaders."

He did not identify the leader.

The shoot-out began Wednesday night when federal police investigating a tip about the presence of armed men in Apatzingán in Michoacán state came under fire from La Familia gunmen, Poire said. The gunmen fired on civilian cars and used the sometimes-burning vehicles as barricades.

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The baby, who was eight months old, was riding in a taxi with his mother when they were caught in gunfire, the state attorney general's office said in a statement Wednesday night. Among the others killed was a the teenage daughter of a former Apatzingán mayor, state police investigator Luís Méndez told Milenio television Thursday.

The Michoacán Attorney General's Office said that by Thursday evening, the total number of people killed was five, including two federal police officers. Three other officers were injured.

The Public Safety Department statement said a third group of gunmen ambushed another federal police unit trying to come to the aid of their colleagues. The gunmen blocked a highway leading into Apatzingán to prevent the police from advancing.

The blockades continued Thursday morning in Morelia, the picturesque colonial capital of Michoacán state.

The gunmen arrived at all five roads leading into Morelia and fired into the air to force drivers and passengers from their vehicles, said Jonathan Arrendondo, a spokesman for the attorney general's office of Michoacán state, where the city is located.

An Associated Press reporter saw a 75-year-old man being treated for a bullet wound to the leg at one of the entry points. Witnesses said the man had been a passenger on a bus and was struck by the bullet as he tried to flee.

Later Thursday, armed gunmen in two trucks ambushed a group of federal and state police officer patrolling the Morelia-Patzcuaro highway, injuring three.

Such blockades have become a common cartel tactic in Mexico's raging drug war. The practice started earlier this year in northeastern Mexico, where the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs are locked in a fierce turf war, and recently spread to Michoacán, home state of President Felipe Calderón.

Michoacán is a stronghold of La Familia cartel, which is known for beheadings and brash attacks against government security forces. It was the second time in less than a month that gunmen have blocked roads leading into Morelia.

The federal police have recently arrested several key La Familia members. One of those suspects, Sergio Moreno Godínez, said under police interrogation last month that the cartel is in decline. He confirmed the authenticity of a letter, e-mailed to journalists and dropped on the streets of several towns, saying the cartel wants to disband and negotiate a truce with authorities.

The government has ignored the offer.

La Familia, which officials say is Mexico's main trafficker of methamphetamine, captured nationwide attention in 2006 by rolling severed heads onto a disco floor in the city of Uruapan.

Shortly afterward, Calderón sent thousands of federal troops and police into Michoacán. He has since deployed thousands more to other cartel strongholds in Mexico, and drug gang violence has surged, claiming more than 28,000 lives.

In northern Chihuahua state, meanwhile, six people were gunned down Thursday morning by the side of a highway leading south of the capital, also called Chihuahua.

Witnesses told police that gunmen drove up, forced the six men out of the car, shot them and fled, said Carlos González, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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