Apartzingan, Mexico - Mexican soldiers and federal police faced off with vigilantes in a tense stand-off on Tuesday after a new government campaign to stop violence in western Michoacan state turned deadly.
There were widely varying reports of casualties. Associated Press journalists saw the bodies of two men reportedly killed in a clash that began late on Monday between soldiers and townspeople in Antunez and spoke with the family of a third man that said he also died in the incident.
No women or children died, contrary to reports by the spokesman for one of “self-defence” groups that have sprung up over the past year to challenge a drug cartel.
The clash occurred as the government sent more troops to the so-called Tierra Caliente, where the vigilantes have been fighting the Knights Templar cartel. The government on Monday had called on the self-defence groups to disarm.
By Tuesday afternoon, vigilantes blocked roads leading into towns under their control, and federal police manned their own roadblocks outside. One federal officer who was not authorised to speak to the press said they had no orders to disarm anyone, or to try to take vigilante-held towns.
The Attorney General's Office said it could not confirm a number of dead. The Interior Ministry said it had no information about reports from people in Antunez that soldiers arriving in the town Monday night fired on an unarmed crowd.
“This is how they plan to protect the community? We don't want them,” said Gloria Perez Torres, grieving over the body of her brother, Mario, 56, who was killed in the clash.
In the city of Apatzingan, hundreds of federal police offices travelling in pickup trucks with machines guns mounted on the top, armoured vehicles and buses massed in the city square as residents watched.
“The federal police have been here for years, but they don't do anything,” said a man sitting on a bench at the plaza who identified himself only as Ivan.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope, who formerly worked for Mexico's intelligence agency, called the government's strategy in Michoacan a “disaster.”
After initially arresting the vigilantes months ago, the federal government under Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong appeared to be working with them recently. The army and Federal Police have provided helicopter cover and road patrols while the self-defence groups attacked the cartel, but never intervened in the battles.
“Last week they were protecting the vigilantes,” said Hope, director of security policy at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute. “Secretary Osorio practically said they were useful ... now they're going to put them down with firepower and bloodshed?”
The government doesn't agree with that assessment, said an official with the Interior Ministry who was not authorised to speak to the press by name.
“It's a strategy that's being adjusted, modified based on the demands of what is happening on the ground,” the official said.
Osorio Chong announced the new strategy Monday following a weekend of firefights as the vigilantes extended their control to the communities of Antunez, Paracuaro and Nueva Italia. Burning trucks and buses blocked highways. Two bodies were found hanging from a bridge.
The deadly confrontation in Antunez started late on Monday after townspeople were called to meet a convoy of soldiers, who they were told were coming to disarm the self-defence group. Witnesses said the civilian group did not carry guns, but as they blocked the military convoy, some soldiers fired into the crowd.
“The army is made of people without values or ethics,” self-defence group spokesman Estanislao Beltran said. “The military has no reason to shoot the people.”
Beltran said the confrontation was with about 60-80 soldiers. There were at least as many civilians, according to witnesses.
The vigilantes have surrounded Apatzingan, a Knights Templar stronghold and the hub of the rich farming region that is a major producer of limes, avocados and mangos. Rumours circulate that some self-defence groups have been infiltrated by the New Generation cartel, which they vehemently deny.
Self-defence group leaders said they coordinated the highway blockades in the 17 municipalities they now control to stop soldiers and federal police from entering their towns.
Ramon Contreras, a vigilante leader in the town of La Ruana, said federal police helicopters flew over the area trying to intimidate residents.
“We're on alert and communicating with each other through radio,” Contreras said.
Felipe Diaz, a leader of vigilantes in Coalcoman, said close to a 1 000 men, women and children helped block the main highway until soldiers and dozens of federal police in four buses and 15 pickup trucks left the area.
“We're still providing security to our people,” Diaz said. “We're talking to them, telling them everything is okay, everything is calm.”