Mexico deployed approximately 4,000 troops to the western state of Michoacan, where rival criminal gangs are engaged in a heated battle over control of the region.
Troops began arriving in the state capital Morelia on Wednesday, along with a military convoy so large that many vehicles had to be parked on the streets outside of the city military headquarters, reports Milenio.
The military surge was accompanied by rumors that the rival criminal groups most active in Michoacan, the Familia Michoacana and their splinter group the Knights Templar, would carry out a series of armed actions this week. In Morelia, schools were dismissed and businesses closed early. In the state's other most important city, Lazaro Cardenas, a traffic blockade blocked the major roads leading into the port city. Some of the trucks and taxis in the blockade carried signs protesting the military surge, according to local newspaper Cambio de Michoacan.
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The deployment appears to be in response to a wave of violence seen in rural Michoacan since late 2011. In the most serious incident, 13 men were found dead outside the town of Zitacuaro on January 9.
The Michoacan government has reportedly identified at least 10 municipalities in the state that are seriously threatened by criminal violence (see map below). These include Apatzingán, Uruapan, Pátzcuaro, Tzintzuntzan, Santa Clara del Cobre, Erongarícuaro, Acuitzio del Canje, Villa Madero, Quiroga, and Zitcuaro. This is a strategically important area for drug traffickers thanks to the access to Mexico's Federal Highway 15, the primary route connecting the north with the south. The mountainous region also provides shelter for methaphetamine laboratories, particularly prevelant in Michoacan thanks to the imports of chemicals which pass through the Lazaro Cardenas port.
The focal point of the surge may be Apatzingan, an important center of operations for Knights Templar, the offshoot group of the Familia Michoacana. The Knights Templar is headed by former Familia commander Servando Gomez Martinez, alias "La Tuta." The leader of the rival Familia faction, Jose Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias "El Chango," was arrested in June 2011.
Michoacan is also the home state of President Felipe Calderon, which partly explains why the area has received so much attention from the security forces since 2006. This was the first state where Calderon sent the military to fight drug violence shortly after assuming office. According to a count by Cambio de Michoacan, there are currently some 10,000 police and military personnel deployed here.
View Uruapan, Michoacán in a larger map