Apatzingan, Mexico – Mexican soldiers and federal police kept a tense standoff with vigilantes Tuesday after a new government campaign to stop violence in western Michoacan state turned deadly.
Reports of casualties varied widely.
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-defense groups to disarm.
Federal and state officials met late Tuesday with vigilantes but failed to reach a disarmament agreement.
"We have to be discreet with our weapons and not move up and down the highways with them," Hipolito Mora, leader of the self-defense group in La Ruana, said when asked about putting down their weapons.
Earlier in the day, members of self-defense groups blocked roads leading into towns under their control, and federal police manned their roadblocks outside of them. One federal officer who was not authorized to speak to the press said they had no orders to disarm anyone or to try to take vigilante-held towns.
"This is how they plan to protect the community? We don't want them," said Gloria Perez Torres. Her brother, Mario, was killed.
In Apatzingan, hundreds of federal police officers traveled in pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the top, armored vehicles and buses massed in the city square as residents watched.
Analyst Alejandro Hope, who once worked for Mexico's intelligence agency, called the government's strategy 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-defense groups attacked the cartel, but government forces never intervened in the battles.
"Last week they were protecting the vigilantes," said Hope, director of security policy at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute. "Osorio practically said they were useful … now they're going to put them down with firepower and bloodshed?"
The government disagrees with that view, said an Interior Ministry official who was not authorized to speak to the media. "It's a strategy that's being adjusted, modified based on the demands of what is happening on the ground," he 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. Two bodies were found hanging from a bridge.
The deadly confrontation in Antunez started late Monday after townspeople were called to meet a convoy of soldiers, who they were told were coming to disarm the self-defense group. Witnesses said the civilian group did not carry guns, but as they blocked the military convoy, some of the 60 to 80 soldiers there fired into the crowd.
"The army is made of people without values or ethics," self-defense group spokesman Estanislao Beltran said. "The military has no reason to shoot the people."
The vigilantes have surrounded Apatzingan, a Knights Templar stronghold and the hub of the rich farming region.
Self-defense group leaders said they coordinated the blockades in the 17 municipalities they now control to stop soldiers and federal police from entering their towns.
Felipe Diaz, a leader of vigilantes in Coalcoman, said almost 1,000 people helped block the main highway until soldiers and dozens of federal police left the area.
"We're still providing security to our people," Diaz said. "We're talking to them, telling them everything is OK."