By Eduardo Verdugo Associated Press
NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — Gunfire erupted Sunday in the western Mexico as hundreds of vigilantes continued a battle for territory with a drug cartel, and Mexico’s top security officials prepared to move yet again to try to stop the violence.
Members of so-called self-defense groups entered the town of Nueva Italia on a campaign they say is designed to liberate towns from the control of the Knights Templar cartel. Opponents and critics say the vigilantes are backed by a rival cartel, something the groups vehemently deny.
Michoacan state Gov. Fausto Vallejo gave a brief statement Sunday saying he has formally asked the federal government for more help to quell the violence, and announced a meeting on Monday in the state capital to lay out a strategy to reclaim the peace.
Hundreds of vigilantes arrived in Nueva Italia late Sunday morning in a caravan of large trucks, surrounding the City Hall and disarming local police. An Associated Press journalist on the scene witnessed citizens initially welcoming them.
But firefights broke out almost immediately in and around the center square. Only one injury was reported by mid-day.
Gunfire could be heard around the city as the Mexican military stayed outside, guarding the road into town.
There were no federal police or uniformed authorities inside the town, though violence between vigilantes and alleged cartel members has racked Michoacan for almost a year, and President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government already has sent thousands of units to the state.
Vallejo said he formally asked Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Friday for more federal forces, “given insufficient state and municipal police.”
The self-defense groups claim that local and state police are in the employ of the Knights Templar.
Violence in the state has flared in the last several days as vigilantes have been on a march, taking over the towns of Paracuaro and Antunez and advancing toward the farming hub of Apatzingan, said to be the cartel’s central command.
The federal government has said the civilian groups are operating on the margins of the law, and they carry high-caliber weapons that Mexico only allows for military use. But government forces have not moved against them and in some cases appear to be working in concert with them.
Rumors circulate that some self-defense groups have been infiltrated by the New Generation cartel, which is reportedly fighting a turf war with the Knights Templar in the rich farming state that is a major exporter of limes, avocados and mangos.
Some in the region say members of the Knights Templar have also tried to use self-defense groups as cover for illegal activities.