– Gunmen attacked a town hall in northern Mexico, authorities said Sunday, triggering a series of clashes with security forces that left 19 dead — most of them suspected members of an organized crime group.

The attack began at noon Saturday when men in at least 14 trucks brandishing assault rifles swept into the town of Villa Union, about 40 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas. They were believed to be members of the Cartel of the Northeast, an offshoot of the once-powerful Zetas.

The gunmen unleashed a furious battle at the town hall, leaving the facade peppered with bullet holes. Mexican police and soldiers fought the attackers and then pursued them as they fled, according to Coahuila state officials. The security forces, backed by army helicopters, chased down the gunmen in an operation that stretched into Sunday morning. The dead included four state police officers and 17 alleged cartel members.

The clash came just days after President Donald Trump said he planned to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations — prompting fierce opposition from Mexico. which fears the designation could hurt investment and tourism and open the possibility of unilateral U.S. action within its southern neighbor.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he planned to meet this week with U.S. Attorney General William Barr to try to head off the terror designation and step up cooperation in fighting violence.

Mexico's homicide rate is expected to hit record levels this year as armed groups nationwide battle over drug routes, gas theft, extortion and kidnapping.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who marked one year in office on Sunday, is under pressure to take stronger steps to limit the mounting violence. While highly popular, his approval ratings have been dented by a series of high-profile attacks — including an ambush that claimed the lives of nine women and children from the LeBaron clan, an extended family of Mormons with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship.

Washington post