More violence plagues Mexico; military supplants police force

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom.

MEXICO CITY — While millions of Mexicans celebrated the Day of the Dead holiday in peace this weekend, violence erupted in numerous areas of the country as well, including a series of drug cartel-related gunfights Sunday in and around the border city of Matamoros that left at least 13 people dead.

On the other side of the country, the Mexican military on Monday reportedly disarmed the entire police force in the municipality of Lazaro Cardenas, home to the Pacific Ocean port of the same name, with troops taking over the police functions in the area.

The reasons for the military takeover of the municipality in the troubled state of Michoacan were not immediately clear. But Eduardo Sanchez, the federal government's security spokesman, said at a news conference that the government had received tips about possible "acts of corruption, acts of collusion, etc." at the port, which is known as a shipment point for the precursor chemicals for methamphetamine.

The police takeover was part of a broader plan to strengthen security at Lazaro Cardenas, Sanchez said. The military, he added, would soon “evaluate and train, where appropriate” the municipal police.

Michoacan is one of Mexico’s most troubled states, with swaths of countryside racked by tense standoffs between drug gangs and ad hoc “self-defense” vigilante units. On Oct. 27, a number of electric plants were attacked in the state, presumably by drug cartel members.

In Matamoros, some 800 miles to the northeast, Mayor Norma Leticia Salazar told Milenio TV on Monday afternoon that armed groups continued to have a presence on the street, and recommended that residents stay inside. Officials at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas announced Monday classes were suspended at the Matamoros campus.

Matamoros, a city of roughly 500,000 residents, is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, and is the major border city closest to the Gulf of Mexico. An important drug transshipment point, it has traditionally been controlled by the Gulf cartel -- although their rivals, the Zetas, have clashed with Gulf groups for control of the city in the last couple of years.

However, there was unconfirmed speculation that Sunday’s violence was the result of a struggle between factions within the Gulf cartel, which is presumed to be in some disarray after the recent capture of a number of Gulf capos. These include top Gulf leader Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño, who was seized by the Mexican military in August.

According to the newspaper La Jornada, many citizens remained holed up in their homes early Monday, with many students remaining home from school because of reports of continuing shootouts.

A state press release described three incidents Sunday. The first, which occurred before noon on the highway, occurred between two armed groups and left five people killed. The next two incidents, which occurred in the afternoon, involved alleged criminal confrontations with Mexican military troops, and resulted in the deaths of eight more suspected criminals.

Some Mexican media outlets have contended that the death toll may have actually been 20 or higher, and that cartel members violently stole cars, which were then used to block off some intersections of the city.

Meanwhile, the city of Juarez, across from the west Texas city of El Paso, also suffered a bloody weekend, with 10 apparently unrelated homicides reported between Friday and Monday, according to government officials.

Juarez has also been the scene of a multi-year struggle for dominance among drug groups that turned it into one of the deadliest urban areas in the hemisphere. More recently, the homicide rate has declined in Juarez, but the weekend’s death toll -- along with a shooting in September at a baseball game after-party that left 10 dead -- demonstrate that the city’s problems are far from solved.

Disorder also reigned Saturday morning in the municipality of Huehuetoca, about an hour north of Mexico City. There, a policeman reportedly shot and killed a 14-year-old while trying to quell a large brawl that had begun at a dance party, according to local media.

Enraged by the shooting, some members of the crowd allegedly overturned cars and set the municipal capital building on fire, resulting in what the newspaper El Universal described as “considerable” damage.

For the record, 8:35 p.m. Nov. 4: A previous version of this post said Matamoros is northwest of Lazaro Cardenas. It is northeast.


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Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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