, Mexico City October 29- Brazen attacks on power stations in Mexico’s troubled state of Michoacan were a show of force by a drug cartel defying government authority and vigilante groups, local leaders and observers said.
The federal government said Monday that police detained three men suspected of taking part in the assault on state owned electricity facilities that left 14 towns and 420,000 people without power for hours in the western state.
Interior ministry spokesman Eduardo Sanchez described Sunday’s assault on the power grid and six fuel stations as “acts of vandalism” and said prosecutors were investigating who was behind it.
But Governor Fausto Vallejo said the attacks were linked to a feud between rival criminal gangs and amounted to “acts of terrorism” that targeted “strategic services of the federation.”
Michoacan has become a flashpoint in Mexico’s battle against drug cartels, with towns forming vigilante forces to combat the Knights Templar gang and the government deploying thousands of troops in May to bring down violence.
The Knights Templar accuse the vigilantes of being backed by their rivals, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge denied by the self defense forces.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that authorities suspect the Knights Templar carried out Sunday’s sabotage as a message to vigilantes and the population “that they won’t allow people to mess with them.”
The official said the cartel is believed to have acted in retaliation after hundreds of vigilantes entered the town of Apatzingan, a gang stronghold, unarmed on Saturday.
Vigilante leaders said they wanted, but failed, to expel the gang from the strategic town, which lies on a key supply route for the farm products, notably the state’s top agricultural export, limes.
The self defense militia was met with gunfire that wounded one person. Federal police and soldiers patrolled the town on Monday.
Hours after the march in Apatzingan, assailants fired guns of various caliber and Molotov cocktails on power facilities and fuel stations, including four in Morelia, the state capital, officials said.
The cartel employed “terrorist tactics” in attacking facilities owned by the Federal Electricity Commission, said Raul Benitez Manaut, national security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“It was carried out in a coordinated manner in various locations in the state. They have great control over well trained criminal cells all over the state,” Benitez Manaut said.
Vallejo said authorities had heard about “this possible scenario” a week ago but “not of this magnitude” and that federal police and soldiers were present.
The assailants’ ability to launch raids against several installations highlighted the government’s struggle to contain the cartel.
While officials say nobody was hurt in the assault, the weekend was marked by other acts of violence that left seven people dead, including two in a shootout between soldiers and an armed group, officials said.
Fed up with the extortion rackets, kidnappings and murders perpetrated by the pseudo religious Knights Templar cartel, several towns have formed self defense forces to defend their populations and businesses.
Hipolito Mora, leader of self defense forces in La Ruana, said the vigilantes entered Apatzingan in a bid to “liberate” the town of 120,000 people.
But the army barred them from going in with weapons, and when some 300 unarmed men reached the center of Apatzingan, they had to dodge bullets.
Jorge Vazquez, leader of a self defense force in the town of Aguililla, told AFP that the sabotage was “a show of force by the Knights Templar to demonstrate that they are everywhere.”