MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — Clashes in which self-described "self-defense" forces sought to oust the Knights Templar drug cartel from the western Mexico state of Michoacan left at least five men dead and hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.
The weekend confrontations followed a daring march by a self-defense force into the city of Apatzingan, the central stronghold of the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel that for years has dominated Michoacan, a state that sends a steady stream of avocados and migrants to the United States.
State Interior Secretary Jaime Mares said soldiers and federal police had taken over security in Apatzingan following the clashes.
Since rising up in February against systematic extortion by the Knights Templar, residents of a half dozen towns that formed self-defense patrols have lived without access to Apatzingan, a commercial and road hub that is home to the region's main hospital and markets.
Self-defense leaders said they finally grew tired of the cartel blocking services and commerce in an attempt to strangle their uprising and showed up Friday on Apatzingan's outskirts, armed and ready to "liberate" the city. They were turned back by soldiers who said they couldn't enter with weapons.
A convoy of hundreds of unarmed self-defense patrol members returned on Saturday and successfully entered the city, where they were met by gunfire, presumably from the Knights Templar.
"They attacked us with grenades, and with M-60 machine guns, judging by the bullet holes in some of our vehicles," self-defense leader Jose Manuel Mireles said Monday. He said one of their members was wounded.
Mireles said the Knights Templar was apparently outraged by the invasion of their stronghold, and early Sunday attacked defensive trenches constructed by the self-defense patrols near Apatzingan's outskirts.
Local police said five men were found dead following that attack, but Mireles said self-defense patrol members saw 12 dead cartel gunmen and lost one of their own. Drug cartels often quickly retrieve and bury the bodies of fallen members after clashes.
Apparently in retaliation, suspected cartel members on Sunday mounted coordinated attacks on electrical facilities, including power distribution plants and electrical sub-stations, in 14 towns and cities around Michoacan.
The Federal Electricity Commission refused to say how many homes were affected, but local sources reported about 400,000 people lost power for hours before repairs were made. About a half dozen gas stations were also attacked. The Interior Department said in a Sunday statement that fire bombs and several different types of guns were used, but didn't identify the attackers.
"It was the Knights Templar who did it, to pressure the government and intimidate them into disarming the self-defense forces," said Hipolito Mora, leader of self-defense forces in the hamlet of La Ruana.
Although the government has said it won't tolerate vigilantes, it has let the self-defense forces operate in most towns.
The control of the Knights Templar group was once so complete that it would have been unthinkable for any rival to enter Apatzingan. The Knights Templar often traveled in vehicles marked with its symbol, a red cross, and sponsored demonstrations calling for the federal police to leave the city.
Members of the self-defense patrols deny suggestions by some officials that they are controlled by a rival cartel.
"This is the only stupid shield they can use ... to justify themselves after 12 years in which these useless officials haven't done anything" to combat cartel control of the state, Mireles said.
Associated Press writer Gustavo Ruiz reported this story in Morelia and Mark Stevenson reported from Mexico City. AP writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.