NUEVA ITALIA, MEXICO – Vigilantes seized a drug cartel’s bastion in western Mexico on Sunday, sparking a shootout as civilian militias gained new ground in their struggle against the gang in a violence-plagued region.
Hundreds of armed civilians riding in more than 100 pickup trucks rolled into the Michoacan state town of Nueva Italia and were met by gunfire from presumed members of the Knights Templar cartel when they reached the municipal office.
“They shot at us from two locations, and the clash lasted around an hour and a half,” said Jaime Ortiz, a 47-year-old farmer and vigilante leader from the town of La Ruana. Two members of the self-defense unit were wounded, he said, standing in the main square of the town of 40,000, surrounded by hundreds of men armed with AK-47 assault rifles, bulletproof vests and radios.
Some sidewalks were soaked in blood in the empty streets.
The growing civilian militia movement, which first emerged in Michoacan nearly a year ago, has seized more communities in recent weeks in a bid to oust the Templars from the state.
The turmoil in Michoacan has become the biggest security challenge of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s 13-month-old administration, which inherited a drug war that has killed more than 77,000 people in the past seven years.