MEXICO CITY – At least 39 people were killed Friday in a gunfight with federal police in a western Mexico region hit by cartel violence, in one of the bloodiest clashes in the country’s drug war.
At least two police officers also died in the shootout with armed civilians in the municipality of Tanhuato, in Michoacán state, near the border with Jalisco state, a federal government official told AFP.
The overall death toll of 39 was a “preliminary figure,” the official said on condition of anonymity. Local media said as many as 46 armed civilians were killed.
Michoacán Governor Salvador Jara said the clash erupted when security forces stopped a suspicious vehicle, prompting its passengers to shoot.
“This was the beginning and then it evolved because the preliminary report I have is that those who were attacking were numerous,” Jara told Radio Formula, adding that he could not confirm the death toll.
The gunmen took cover in a ranch, where an intense gun battle ensued, according to Radio Formula.
Jara said it was “very probable” that the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel was involved but that the attack was under investigation.
Another federal official said the government would make an official announcement late in the day. The security cabinet was reportedly heading to the area.
Michoacán and Jalisco have endured some of the worst violence in a drug war that began to escalate in 2006, when the government deployed troops to combat cartels.
More than 80,000 have been killed and another 22,000 gone missing nationwide in the past nine years.
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The Jalisco New Generation drug cartel has launched deadly ambushes against police this year in Jalisco state, but the identity or criminal affiliation of the armed civilians in Friday’s clash was not immediately known.
Tanhuato is near Yurecuaro, a town where a former vigilante leader who was running for mayor was shot dead during a campaign event last week.
Farmers formed vigilante forces in Michoacán in 2013 to drive out the Knights Templar drug cartel, which has been weakened by arrests of its top leaders.
The Yurecuaro candidate, Enrique Hernández of the leftist Morena party, was killed by gunmen in a vehicle, while three people were wounded.
The government last year turned the vigilantes into a “rural defense” force, but the movement has been marred by deadly infighting since then.
In December, 11 people died in a shootout between two self-defense groups.
Tanhuato is also near the border with Jalisco state, where the powerful Jalisco New Generation drug cartel has battled security forces in deadly clashes this year.
The municipality is a short drive from the town of La Barca, where 64 bodies were unearthed from mass graves in 2013.
The New Generation cartel has taken the authorities head-on this year, killing seven soldiers and a policewoman when they took down a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade on May 1.
The attack on the helicopter came on the day the government announced Operation Jalisco, a military and police strategy against the New Generation cartel.
In April, the cartel killed 15 state police officers on a highway near the Jalisco village of Soyatán. A month earlier, the gang killed five federal police gendarmes in the town of Ocotlán.