39 die in Mexico police shootout with suspected cartel members

39 die in Mexico police shootout with suspected cartel members
Residentswalk by military personnel in Chilapa, Mexico, on May 14. (Jose Luis De la Cruz / European Pressphoto Agency)

A gunfight between Mexican police and suspected criminals in the cartel-dominated western state of Michoacan left at least 39 people dead Friday, according to authorities and news reports.

The firefight occurred in Tanhuato on Michoacan's border with Jalisco state. The region has seen intense drug-related violence in recent months, at least in part because of the approaching midterm elections June 7.

Early reports Friday suggested that the Jalisco New Generation cartel, Mexico's fastest growing criminal group, might have been behind the attack in Tanhuato. Details about who died in the gunfight were not immediately available.

Tension between the Jalisco New Generation cartel and the Mexican government has been high since members of the cartel shot down a police helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade early this month, killing six soldiers. The army was in pursuit of a cartel convoy when the copter was downed.

After the attack, the national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubio, told Mexico's Televisa network that "the full force of the Mexican state will be felt in the state of Jalisco."

In early April, Jalisco New Generation ambushed and killed 15 members of the federal police, the largest death count in an attack on state forces here since 2010.

Tanhuato is minutes from Yurecuaro, where a political candidate was fatally shot last week during a campaign event. The slaying of Enrique Hernandez of the left-leaning Movement for National Regeneration, or Morena, party prompted authorities to reinforce security along the state line between Michoacan and Jalisco, which also forms part of a region known as Tierra Caliente, or hotlands.

Tierra Caliente is a center of drug production and trafficking in Mexico and has been a focus in President Enrique Peña Nieto's security strategy. Civilians began to rise up in arms there about two years ago to defend themselves against the criminal groups that kill, kidnap and extort money from residents.

On Thursday, three bodies were found near Chilapa in Guerrero state, where at least 16 people went missing this month when the town was taken over by armed, masked men for five days.

The bodies were not immediately identified, but the leader of the federal police, Enrique Galindo, on Friday made his second trip to Chilapa to speak to the families of the missing.

The Mexican government has moved quickly over the last few days in an attempt to take control of the situation. Peña Nieto and his administration want to avoid a new scandal involving mass disappearances after international condemnation last year over the abduction of 43 college students.

The students vanished in September after being detained by local police in the city of Iguala,about a three-hour drive from Chilapa. The federal government initially gave jurisdiction for the incident to Guerrero's state government, for which it was heavily criticized.

Since then, clandestine graves containing about 100 bodies have been discovered in the hills around Iguala; the remains of only one of the students have been identified.

Bonello is a special correspondent.