ANTUNEZ, Mexico — The Mexican government moved in to quell violence between vigilantes and a drug cartel, and witnesses say several unarmed civilians were killed in an early Tuesday confrontation.
There were widely varying reports of casualties, but Associated Press journalists saw two bodies and spoke to the family of a third person who was reportedly killed. None were women or children, contrary to earlier reports by the spokesman of a self-defense group.
The Attorney General's Office said it could not confirm a number of dead. The Interior Ministry said it had no information about reports that soldiers had fired on an unarmed crowd.
"This is how they plan to protect the community? We don't want them," said Gloria Perez Torres, grieving over the body of her brother, Mario, 56, one of the dead.
Antunez was calm again Tuesday, and self-defense groups remained armed and in control.
The government sent more troops and federal police late Monday to retake an area known as the Tierra Caliente after days of violence between the vigilantes and the Knights Templar cartel. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong urged the vigilantes to put down their arms and return to their home communities, saying the government would not tolerate anyone breaking the law.
The confrontation started late Monday night in the town of Antunez, which was taken over by the vigilantes in the last several days. Townspeople were called to meet a convoy of soldiers who they were told were coming to disarm the self-defense group. Witnesses said the civilian group did not carry guns, but as they blocked the military convoy, some soldiers fired into the crowd.
"They opened fire on civilians. How it that justified?" Defense group spokesman Estanislao Beltran told MVS radio. He told The Associated Press that only one of the dead was a self-defense group member.
Beltran said the confrontation was with about 60-80 soldiers.
The self-defense groups have no plans to put down their arms, he added.
"We don't have confidence in the government," he said. "We've asked for help for years and have received the same. The government is compromised by organized crime."
He has also said they won't give up until the government captures the leaders of the cartel.
Osorio Chong said federal forces with support from Michoacan state police will patrol the area.
He made his announcement Monday after a meeting called by Michoacan state Gov. Fausto Vallejo following a weekend of firefights as the vigilantes extended their control to Antunez, Paracuaro, and Nueva Italia. The area exploded in gunfire. Burning trucks and buses blocked highways. Two bodies were found hanging from a bridge.
The presence of soldiers and federal police had already been beefed up in the area for several months, and both were present during the weekend conflicts, but didn't intervene. Self-defense leaders have said they were getting support from soldiers and federal police, something the Mexican government denies.
The vigilantes have surrounded the farming hub of Apatzingan, considered the command post of the Knights Templar, but had said they were not going into the main city at the request of the army.
Almost every store was closed in Apatzingan on Monday and there were few people on the street and little police presence. Shopkeepers said they were afraid to open after gunmen believed to be working for the Knights Templar cartel threw firebombs at several of the city's businesses and city hall over the weekend.
Rumors circulate that some self-defense groups have been infiltrated by the New Generation cartel, which is reportedly fighting a turf war with the Knights Templar in the rich farming state that is a major producer of limes, avocados and mangos. The self-defense groups vehemently deny that.
In an odd twist to the story, the coordinator of the vigilantes, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, appeared in a video on the Televisa network late Monday night saying the federal government is doing what the vigilantes want and urged them to heed Osorio Chong and return to their daily lives.
Mireles is recovering from an airplane crash earlier this month that broke his jaw and ribs. He is in an undisclosed location and has been under heavy Federal Police protection. Many criticized the government for not arresting him, as the vigilantes are breaking Mexican law, including using high-caliber arms that are only legal for the military.
On Televisa, his face was swollen and he spoke slowly, as if under sedation.
Later, in a second video, Mireles appeared more alert. He told reporters in the room that he is not advocating the laydown of arms until the entire state of Michoacan is free of organized crime and operating under the rule of law.