Federal police in western Mexico were locked in armed clashes Friday with a faction of the drug gang known as La Familia, two weeks after they said they had all but vanquished the group.
Authorities said seven gunmen were killed in the violence, which began late Thursday after drug henchmen set cars ablaze to block roads across the state of Michoacan.
The so-called narco-blockades, often meant to hinder police, appeared designed to signal to authorities that a wing of La Familia was still very much a force. Television images showed columns of smoke rising from burning vehicles around the state capital, Morelia.
Banners signed by the Knights Templar faction of La Familia, and directed to Luis Cardenas Palomino, a top federal police commander, accused police officers of raping women during their operations in Michoacan.
“Do you have a mother?” one banner asked. “Do you have a wife? Do you have sisters? Do you have daughters?” It continued: “We’re willing to give our blood for our women.”
Authorities said the slain gunmen were members of the Knights Templar faction who had fired on federal police Thursday in the city of Apatzingan. Officials said the gunmen fired on civilians in the area, though no injuries were reported.
Police said the gang was seeking to drive federal forces from Michoacan but vowed that that was “not going to happen.”
Michoacan is the birthplace of President Felipe Calderon and a hot spot in his government’s 4-1/2 -year-old crackdown on drug cartels. As part of the offensive, thousands of federal police officers and soldiers have poured into Michoacan, at times coming under attack by La Familia gunmen.
Federal officials had claimed to have struck a decisive blow against the cultish group after capturing Jose de Jesus “El Chango” Mendez, identified as its top boss. But Michoacan officials have braced for ramped-up violence.
Mendez, whose nickname means “the monkey,” had been battling an ex-leader of La Familia, former teacher Servando Gomez Martinez, who goes by the moniker “La Tuta.” Gomez’s branch dubbed itself the Knights Templar, apparently after the Crusades-era order.
Feuding began after La Familia’s founder and spiritual leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, died in clashes with Mexican forces in December.
The power struggle left dozens of dead around Michoacan in the weeks before Mendez was captured in the central state of Aguascalientes.