NUEVO ITALIA, Mexico – The thousands of federal police and military troops who have descended on the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan have been busy arresting suspected drug cartel members, disarming untrustworthy local police officers and standing guard on street corners of its tiny towns, assault rifles at the ready.
The troop buildup has so far deterred the region’s vigilante “self-defense” groups from broadening their fight against the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel and helped President Enrique Peña Nieto avert a domestic disaster.
But the risk of violence remained high Thursday in the agricultural region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land. Late Wednesday, shots were fired at the office of the federal prosecutor in the city of Apatzingan, according to the news service Quadratin. A 25-year-old window washer was injured.
Many residents in Michoacan interpreted the shooting as part of the violent protests launched by allies of the Knights Templar, for whom Apatzingan, a city of more than 90,000, is an important base of operations. On Thursday, federal police reportedly arrested a man on suspicion of burning down an Apatzingan pharmacy Wednesday morning.
Some residents have pointed to such incidents as proof that the federal government is unable or unwilling to stamp out the Knights Templar, which has used terrorism and extortion to control much of the day-to-day commerce in Michoacan, from drug production to cattle ranching. The cartel has also infiltrated many local governments.
A 62-year-old Nueva Italia resident named Marta, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisal, said she found it disturbing that the pharmacy was burned despite the troops' presence in Apatzingan. In general, she said, the government forces who had swarmed into her small city, about 20 miles east of Apatzingan, were “sellouts” who couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace.
Instead, Marta said, she placed her faith in the self-defense groups, who were staffing roadblocks alongside federal police on the outskirts of town.
The vigilantes, she said, “are fighting for the pueblos.... If the government’s not going to defend us, we will.”
A violent showdown between vigilantes and drug cartel operatives appeared inevitable in Nuevo Italia early in the week. Members of self-defense groups had disarmed local police and declared themselves in control, leading to the federal troop deployment.
The federal government issued a statement Wednesday saying it had assigned police or military personnel to every municipality in the southern part of the state. Officials also said they had arrested two alleged cartel leaders, Joaquin Negrete and Jorge Fabian Quezada.
Federal government forces have detained more than 150 municipal police officers and officials plan to evaluate their trustworthiness, according to the statement.