MEXICO CITY — Four human heads were reportedly discovered Thursday in Michoacan state, one of several recent incidents that suggest the Knights Templar drug cartel may be lashing out as the federal government and vigilante groups attempt to retake territory under cartel control.
The heads were found in the indigenous community of Zacan, about 200 miles west of Mexico City, according to numerous news reports. The newspaper El Universal reported that a "message with threats from organized crime" was found along with the body parts. Two other human heads were discovered Monday in Antunez, south of Zacan.
Zacan and Antunez are among numerous communities in Michoacan where vigilante autodefensas, or self-defense groups, have established a presence in an effort to drive out the Knights Templar. Last month, after the vigilantes threatened to descend on a key cartel stronghold, the Mexican federal government sent in thousands of troops and police in an effort to keep the peace.
More recently, the government joined forces with the vigilantes, bringing them under the umbrella of federal control by making them part of a preexisting official paramilitary entity known as the Rural Defense Corps.
The Knights Templar had become deeply entwined in many aspects of economic life in the agricultural state, and residents of the areas they controlled were bracing for the cartel to take bloody revenge after the arrival of federal forces in mid-January. Though the motives behind this week's beheadings were unclear, they may represent efforts by the Knights Templar to lash out against the forces allied against them.
Meanwhile, the states around Michoacan have been stepping up security in anticipation of the "cucaracha effect" — that is, increased violence as Michoacan-based cartel members scurry away from the increased federal presence there.
Some of the violence has already spilled over the state's borders. The head of Mexico's National Public Security System, Monte Alejandro Rubido, said Thursday afternoon that federal forces had arrested 19 suspects in the Jan. 19 arson attacks on convenience stores in the states of Mexico and Hidalgo. All of the attacks occurred close to the Michoacan border.
The suspects, Rubido said, had been planning similar attacks in Michoacan. He said they were in possession of drugs, a variety of weapons and propaganda leaflets "alluding to a criminal group that operates in Michoacan."
On Wednesday, just north of the Michoacan border, gunmen opened fire in separate incidents on the trucks of police chiefs in two municipalities in the state of Guanajuato, said Baltazar Galindo, spokesman for the state prosecutor's office.
The police chief in Acambaro, Jesus Ivan Orozco, 37, was shot twice and was in stable condition Thursday. A 27-year-old woman passing by the scene was shot in the stomach and was in "serious" condition, Galindo said.
Gunmen also shot up the truck used by the police chief in nearby Salvatierra, but the chief was not in it at the time. His bodyguard was injured, and also in stable condition Thursday.
Galindo said no line of investigation was being ruled out in the shootings, "including whether organized crime is behind these acts."
Mexican officials also reportedly discovered an unmarked grave with about 20 bodies Wednesday in the Michoacan municipality of Tinguindin.
Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.