MEXICO CITY — Last week, Mexican authorities were celebrating the capture of one of the country’s most notorious drug lords.
This week, they are facing a stunning escalation of cartel-related violence in an entirely different region — a sobering reminder that the grinding battle here against organized crime is being fought on multiple fronts.
In the past three days, mafia gunmen in the convulsive western state of Michoacán have staged at least seven guerrilla-style ambushes on Mexican federal police convoys, killing four officers and wounding 19.
Open combat involving government security forces, criminal gangs and the local militias that have emerged to fight them have left at least 42 people dead in the past week in Michoacán, according to tallies by Mexico’s Reforma newspaper. Mexican officials said they are sending an additional 2,000 soldiers and police to prevent the violence from spiraling further out of control.
Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong insisted that the government won’t pull back until the state’s gangsters are vanquished and that the groups are lashing out because they are losing ground to federal forces.
“There will be no step backwards. We will continue pushing forward and will not allow them to violate the security, property and lives of our citizens,” Osorio Chong told reporters.
Michoacán, and especially its lowland Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land,” region, has been a smoldering battleground for years. The state is a major producer of methamphetamine, and drug gangs also squeeze local businesses and villagers with schemes to extort payments from large businesses and humble farmworkers alike.
Repeated government attempts to pacify Michoacán have floundered. The state was the first place former President Felipe Calderón deployed troops when he took office in December 2006. His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered a military surge into the state in May, as the ascendant local cartel, the Knights Templar, continued to terrorize towns and torch the businesses and homes of anyone challenging its reign.
Exasperated villagers in some towns have formed their own militias, or “self-defense groups,” to ward off attacks, adding a volatile element to the conflict. The Mexican government has struggled to demobilize them and to sort out which groups are legitimate vigilantes and which ones are really front groups for the gangsters.
Hipolito Mora, a militia leader in the town of La Ruana who has battled the Knights Templar, said the gang is “mad” because “the army is here, and more and more self-defense groups are rising up.”
“That’s why they’re attacking the federal police,” he said in a radio interview Thursday.
Groups like Mora’s have set up makeshift checkpoints along highways in the state and patrol their towns with shotguns, rifles and illegal automatic weapons of mysterious origin. In several parts of Michoacán, they have stirred the wrath of the cartels.
On Monday in the central plaza of the town of Los Reyes, gunmen opened fire on a crowd protesting against the Knights Templar, killing five people. The attackers unleashed a fusillade of more than 100 rounds before fleeing.
In another Michoacán town Wednesday, a group of masked villagers wearing white “self-defense group” T-shirts stormed the offices of their municipal government and carried off the police department’s automatic weapons, along with two patrol cars.
The spreading mayhem in the state is becoming the same “stumbling block” for Peña Nieto that it was for Calderón, with criminal groups posing an “open challenge” to the government, said Mexico City security analyst Jorge Chabat.
“Presidents change, but the problems of violence and insecurity are still there,” Chabat said. “These are structural issues that are the result of government failure. And they will be very difficult to fix.”
© 2013, The Washington Post