Two bloody shootouts between security forces and citizens in Mexico’s turbulent Michoacan state left at least nine dead, in yet another sign of the increasingly chaotic landscape of vigilante groups in the region.
On the early morning of January 6, Mexican federal police officers and soldiers reclaimed the mayor’s office in the town of Apatzingan, Michoacan, which had been held by an armed group — identified by authorities as the Viagras — since December 22, reported Informador. The violent confrontation officially left one dead and led to the arrests of 44 individuals, but locals said at least seven were killed in the gun battle, reported El Universal.
Later that morning, a confrontation between protesters and security forces over the earlier shootout led to eight more deaths, reported Univision. It remains unclear if those killed were members of the Viagras.
In a press conference on the same day, Michoacan Security Commissioner Alfredo Castillo claimed that organized crime is not an issue in Michoacan, and that the recent violence is due to internal conflicts among the fragmented self-defense forces, reported La Voz.
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This conflict is the latest indication that the launching of the state-backed Rural Defense Force in May 2014 may only lead to increased violence in Michoacan. As the distinction between vigilantes and criminal groups becomes increasingly blurred, the government’s decisions about who to support and who to prosecute appear to be exacerbating the situation.
The Viagras are a good example of this security dilemma. The armed group allegedly worked for the Familia Michoacana and Knights Templar criminal organizations, and Knights Templar leader Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” has claimed the Viagras left the Knights Templar to join the Guerreros Unidos criminal group. However, Castillo has previously stated that the Viagras form part of a “special group” of the Rural Defense Force, and vigilante leader Luis Antonio Torres, alias “El Americano,” has referred to them as allies. The seizure of a mayor’s office and the recent violent confrontations with security forces exemplify just how shaky the alliances can be between the Mexican government and shadowy vigilante groups.
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Meanwhile, tensions between different factions within the Rural Defense Force have also resulted in bloodshed. Rival units — led by Torres and Hipolito Mora, respectively — engaged in a gun fight in mid-December that left 11 dead. Torres turned himself in to authorities following the confrontation, in which Mora’s son was killed.