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Mexican drug cartel ambushes federal police convoys

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 6:09 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's rough western state of Michoacan, producer of avocados and waves of migrants, is proving just as painful a thorn in the side of President Enrique Pena Nieto as it was for his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Coming off a stunning success with the capture of Zetas cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, Pena Nieto almost immediately was plunged back into the bloody reality of Mexico's drug war this week as gunmen believed to be working for the Knights Templar cartel staged a coordinated series of ambushes on federal police convoys Tuesday.

Attacks continued on Wednesday, wounding at least five federal police officers. The death toll from Tuesday's clashes stood at 20 gunmen and two federal police. About 15 people were injured.

Pena Nieto sent thousands of troops and federal police to the area two months ago seeking to regain control of the state from the Knights Templar,.

The cartel's deep local roots and proven capacity for violence could make Michoacan the graveyard of Pena Nieto's pledge to reduce drug violence.

“They are challenging the Mexican state on an equal footing,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior scholar at Columbia University who studies organized crime in Latin America, noting that in many areas of Michoacan the Knights Templar gang is the de-facto law. “You have state vacuums in Mexico that are not covered by any kind of institutional framework ... and the cartels are moving in to capture pieces of the state.”

The government has defended its plan to restore order, even though officials have never made very clear what that plan is.

The government doesn't seem to have a different strategy than Calderon's for the complex, bloody, multi-sided battle in Michoacan that pits the pseudo-religious Knights Templar against police, vigilante groups and the rival New Generation Jalisco cartel. New Generation, which authorities say is aligned with some vigilante groups, is looking to take over Michoacan by casting itself as a cartel interested only in moving drugs and criticizing the Knights Templar for their kidnappings and extortions of everyday people.

Vigilantes tired of crime are fighting back with self-defense groups they call “community police.” The emergence of such groups has been one factor in the new flare-up of violence.

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