MEXICO CITY (AP) – Federal troops and police engaged in two clashes with armed civilians in a western Mexico city Tuesday, and nine civilians were killed, the federal security commissioner for Michoacan state said.
Commissioner Alfredo Castillo said the confrontations in Apatzingan began Tuesday morning when federal forces moved in to take control of city hall, which had been held for days by civilians whose demands and identities were unclear.
Castillo said a civilian was killed when he was run over while trying to flee and two federal police officers were injured during the operation. He said authorities detained 44 people with 13 rifles or shotguns and seized 23 vehicles.
The second clash came when gunmen attacked soldiers who were transporting the seized vehicles to an impound lot, Castillo said. Eight civilians died and two were wounded, he said.
The army said its troops suffered no casualties in the clash. It is the kind of lopsided death toll that has drawn suspicions in past battles, and Castillo said that “we have to verify (the army’s version) and get witness statements.”
The identities of those who had taken over the city hall, presumably members of the same group involved in the second clash, remain a mystery. Civic groups demanding the arrest of drug cartel leaders have sometimes taken over the Apatzingan city hall or blockaded it.
Michoacan 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 have been accusations that former cartel gunmen have infiltrated vigilante groups, many of which have been recruited into a government-sponsored “rural police” force.
Former vigilantes have also fought among themselves. On Dec. 16, 11 men died in a clash between two groups of vigilantes in the township of Buenavista near Apatzingan. About three dozen members of each side and their leaders are now in prison awaiting trial for that clash.
Castillo said the December battle on a rural road “was a problem of bravado – I won’t let you pass, and you won’t let me pass.”