More than 40 people have been killed in a shootout between Mexican security forces and an armed gang in the western state of Michoacan.
The large scale gunfight took place in Tanhuato near the Jalisco state border on May 22.
According to local reports, almost all the 43 dead were suspected criminals. At least one police officer was killed in the shootout.
The area between Michoacan and Jalisco states is known as a stronghold of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, which has mounted several large-scale attacks on federal and state forces in recent weeks.
The majority of those killed at a ranch are believed to have been members of the cartel, said National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido.
He told reporters that the gunfight had lasted for about three hours and that a number of weapons had been recovered from the scene, including more than 30 rifles.
The gunbattle began when the police and security forces were checking reports of an “invasion” of the 277 acres ranch by a group of armed men.
The authorities later called in air and ground support.
Two years ago vigilante groups formed in Michoacan to drive out the Knights Templar drugs cartel. However, last week a former vigilante leader running for mayor in next month’s elections was shot dead.
The Jalisco New Generation cartel has increased its presence in the area, with Michoacan and Jalisco becoming among Mexico’s most violent states. Gang members are believed to have killed at least 20 police and soldiers since March.
Mexico has begun to swear in members of self-defense groups for its newly created rural police force, as part of a drive to disarm local vigilantes.
The move is designed to bring the militias fighting the Knights Templar drugs cartel in the western state of Michoacan under official control.
The vigilantes say they “cleaned” a number of towns before federal forces joined them in recent months.
But there have also been clashes among vigilantes and with police forces.
Mexico has begun to swear in members of self-defense groups for its newly created rural police force in Michoacan
More than 3,000 people have registered guns and signed up for the new force, officials say.
But many refused to join, despite warnings that they would be arrested.
The Mexican government’s deadline for registering the firearms expired on Saturday.
An initial 240 self-defense group members marched in Tepacaltepec in their new blue uniforms, carrying state-issued guns.
The federal envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, personally greeted the new members of the State Rural Force.
“Those who 15 months ago said ‘Enough’ and decided to confront those who did them harm – because of them today we have the State Rural Force that carries the same conviction of justice, of courage, valor, bravery needed to protect those, who we love the most, our families,” Alfredo Castillo told the farmers.
The self-defense groups in Michoacan started an offensive against the Knights Templar drugs cartel more than a year ago.
Residents of Michoacan say the cartel terrorized them.
Local farmers, shop owners and other residents were victims of extortion, robbery and kidnappings.
During incursions backed by federal reinforcements in the last months, the head of the Knights Templar cartel, Nazario Moreno Gonzales, has been shot dead and many of the group’s leaders arrested.
Following the success in anti-cartel operations, the government demanded the self-defenses to stand down and leave the task of guaranteeing their security to the state.
But some fear that might encourage a come back from the cartel.
There have also been splits in some self-defense groups and the rise of fake vigilantes, correspondents say. The government now wants the rural force to work alongside the police.
Mexico’s government has announced that federal troops will take over security in Michoacán, an area where vigilante groups and a drugs cartel are clashing.
The “self-defense groups” seized several small towns in the western state of Michoacán over the past week.
They say they are fighting for the freedom of their communities from the notorious Knights Templar cartel.
Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong urged the vigilantes to lay down their weapons.
But he warned that there would be no tolerance for those who continued fighting.
“Be certain we will contain the violence in Michoacán,” he said after a meeting with state governor Fausto Vallejo in the regional capital, Morelia.
Miguel Angel Osorio Chong also encouraged the vigilantes to join the police forces.
But the leader of one of the “self-defense groups,” Estanislao Beltran, rejected that offer.
Mexican federal troops will take over security in Michoacán, where vigilante groups and a drugs cartel are clashing
“If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” said Estanislao Beltran.
On Sunday, more than 100 vigilantes seized the small town of Nueva Italia. There were brief exchanges of fire with members of the Knights Templar cartel.
Local police were searched and disarmed, and federal forces were nowhere to be seen.
Some months ago, a small number of federal police were deployed in Michoacán state.
The fertile farming area in western Mexico known as Tierra Caliente has been engulfed in a turf war between the Knights Templar and the New Generation cartel, from neighboring Jalisco state.
The vigilantes say the army and federal troops have failed to guarantee the security of their families.
They say they are preparing an offensive against the Knights Templar centre of command, in the nearby city of Apatzingan.
The criminal gang has accused the vigilantes of having sided with the New Generation cartel, something they fiercely deny.
“What we are doing is fighting for the freedom of our families,” Estanislao Beltran said.