By DAVID LUHNOW And JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA
Wall Street Journal
Three days of raging gun battles this week between rival drug gangs in Michoacán state killed an unknown number of people, forced hundreds to flee their homes and raised fresh fears that another major Mexican state has become all but ungovernable.
Fighting broke out Monday and lasted for three days. But news of the conflict was slow to get out because local media in states like Michoacán have largely stopped covering the carnage on orders from drug gangs.
On Tuesday, a helicopter belonging to the Federal Police was forced to make a hard landing after being shot at by gunmen from a drug cartel, the Federal Investigative Agency, an arm of the Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday. Three federal police were injured.
The police didn't immediately have a number of casualties in the fighting between the gangs. But the lawlessness echoed the scene in Tamaulipas state, where mass graves have recently been found. In another western Mexican state, Nayarit, a gunbattle this week left 28 dead.
"Organized crime groups are fighting for control of the area," said Genaro Guizar, the mayor of Apatzingán, the fourth-largest city in Michoacán. "There was panic throughout the place."
Mr. Guizar said that a total of about 800 people had taken refuge in shelters in the nearby town of Buenavista and in Apazingan, but that the refugees had started to return to their homes Wednesday after fighting eased.
Michoacán, a large agricultural state known also for its tourist attractions like the colonial state capital of Morelia, is the home turf of the powerful La Familia drug cartel, which specializes in making and trafficking methamphetamines, using the port of Lázaro Cárdenas to smuggle in precursor chemicals.
The cartel has infiltrated local police forces and city halls throughout the state, experts say, and largely displaced local governments in many areas.
The situation is so bad that Mexico's three main political parties on Wednesday signed a joint statement saying they were exploring the possibility of fielding a single, unity candidate in November's gubernatorial race in an attempt to set aside partisan bickering and save the state.
"It's indicative of how badly the wheels are falling off," said James McDonald, an anthropology professor at Southern Utah University who lived for many years in Michoacán and is an expert on it. "I think Michoacán is lost, like Tamaulipas. And it could be the realization that they need to get together on this and deal with it, or else."
The uptick in violence in Michoacán this week could be related to December's killing of La Familia chief Nazario Moreno, the messianic leader of the cartel who was known as "El Mas Loco," or "The Craziest One."
But in March, dozens of banners pinned up across the state announced the creation of a new local cartel, dubbed "The Knights Templar."
The Templars are thought to be remnants of La Familia that have regrouped. Mexican police officials believe the Templars are led by a former teacher, Servando Gomez, nicknamed "La Tuta." They believe another surviving La Familia leader, José de Jesus Mendez, known as "El Chango", or the monkey, may be fighting with Mr. Gomez for control of the organization.
A Mexican police report said that La Familia had retreated to the countryside after the arrest of 13 mayors and other officials on drug corruption charges in 2009, but had regained much of their former positions in the state's towns and cities after prosecutors failed to win prosecution against the detained officials, who were released.
Drug-related corruption in Michoacán is rampant, analysts say. The current governor's half-brother and former federal congressman Julio Cesar Godoy was accused of being on the La Familia payroll by Mexican federal officials last year. The congressman was impeached and went on the run. He remains a fugitive.
Raul Benitez, a security analyst at the Autonomous University of Mexico said the federal government is determined not to lose control of Michoacán in part because of its strategic location between Mexico and Guadalajara, the country's two largest cities. "Michoacán is a big problem," said Mr. Benitez, who fears the violence that plagues the state could contaminate the capital and Guadalajara.
Unlike Mexico's other cartels, La Familia and the Templars have a messianic creed and strive to gain popular support among the local population. This worries Mexican officials who see the drug traffickers taking on some of the characteristics of guerrilla fighters, said Mr. Benitez.
Indeed, Michoacán is a prime example of why some military analysts and government officials in the U.S. worry Mexico's drugs war could take on the characteristics of an insurgency, where drug gangs try to displace Mexico's government.
Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the violence in Mexico was starting to resemble a "narco-insurgency," but her comments were batted down by President Barack Obama days later.
Some academics think the comparison is not a stretch—at least in places like Michoacán, a state of 4.3 million. "La Familia is the de facto go-to governance system in communities that are largely abandoned by the state. If you need anything, from medicine to loans, they are the ones people turn to," said Mr. McDonald.
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Levantan albergues instalados en Michoacán