Cartel gunmen shot down a Mexican police helicopter

The gunmen are reportedly allied to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of at least 10 criminal groups fighting for control of the Hot Land region in western Mexico.
September 7, 2016, 7:25pm
(Photo par Cesar Aguirre/EPA)

A splinter group from the once mighty Knights Templar cartel has shot down a Mexican state police helicopter in the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) region of the western state of Michoacán.

National Security Commission Director Renato Sales told Radio Fórmula on Wednesday that the gang used a .50-caliber Barrett rifle to bring down the aircraft. He said the attack took place on Tuesday shortly after federal forces engaged the criminals in a gun battle in which the brother of a local kingpin nicknamed El Cenizo was captured before dying.

Tuesday's incident, which killed the pilot and four others, underlines a resurgence of violence in the state where the murder rate has risen sharply over the past year. At least 10 different illegal armed groups fight over control of the territory, which is roughly divided into two camps.

The group headed by El Cenizo, whose full name is Ignacio Andrade Rentería, reportedly belongs to the camp allied with the fast-growing Jalisco New Generation Cartel based in the neighboring state of Jalisco. The other camp is believed to maintain ties with the more established Sinaloa cartel that has shown signs of weakening since the January recapture of fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán.

Michoacán has a long history as a hub of marijuana cultivation and methamphetamine production, and as a path for trafficking other drugs up the coast. The Hot Land region within it has a particularly high-profile role in Mexico's drug wars.

Former President Felipe Calderón kicked off a major nationwide military-led crackdown on the cartels in December 2006 in the region that, at the time, was dominated by the La Familia cartel, out of which the Templars emerged in 2010. The current criminal mosaic is made up of former factions of the Templarios mixed with members of armed vigilante groups that originally sprung up to fight organized crime in 2013 — but have now become hard to distinguish from it.

Tuesday's attack on the helicopter highlights the fact that even these small groups still represent a major challenge to government forces, particularly when they form alliances with larger organizations such as the Jalisco cartel, which downed an army helicopter in May 2015. The major offensive that followed included a federal police raid on a ranch that killed 42 alleged cartel members.

Only one police officer died, and a subsequent report by the national human rights commission last month said the federal police had committed at least 22 "arbitrary executions" through the use of excessive force in the raid.

Related: Mexican police executed 22 people, report says

Sales, the security commissioner, appeared to refer to this report on Wednesday when he complained that federal forces were being asked to fight the criminals who just downed the helicopter without the forces needed.

"This is an asymmetric fight," he said. "We have to act without the use of firearms, except in extreme circumstances."

Follow Falko Ernst on Twitter: @falko_ernst