MORELIA, Mexico – Federal police hunted for top leaders of the La Familia drug cartel in a western Mexican state on Thursday, unleashing narco-blockades and shootouts that have left at least five people dead, including an 8-month-old baby.
Federal police believe that several La Familia members may have been killed, including one of its top leaders, said Alejandro Poire, government spokesman for security issues. He did not say who the leader may have been.
"The way the criminals have tried to protect themselves as they fled from our operations yesterday and today suggests that we have located and are closely pursuing high-level leaders of La Familia Michoacana," Poire said. "Similarly, preliminary unconfirmed information indicates that in their retreat, the organization has suffered significant causalities, including possibly the death of one of their leaders."
The shootout began Wednesday night when federal police investigating a tip about the presence of armed men in Apatzingan in Michoacan state came under fire from La Familia gunmen, Poire said. The gunmen fired on civilian cars and used the sometimes-burning vehicles as barricades.
One of those killed was an 8-month-old baby who was riding in a taxi with his mother, the state attorney general's office said in a statement Wednesday night. The other was the teenage daughter of a former Apatzingan mayor, state police investigator Luis Mendez told Milenio television Thursday.
The Michoacan Attorney General's Office said that by Thursday evening, the total number of people killed was five, including two federal police officers. Three other officers were injured.
The Public Safety Department statement said a third group of gunmen ambushed another federal police unit trying to come to the aid of their colleagues. The gunmen blocked a highway leading into Apatzingan to prevent the police from advancing.
The blockades continued Thursday morning in Morelia, the picturesque colonial capital of Michoacan state.
The gunmen arrived at all five roads leading into Morelia and fired into the air to force drivers and passengers from their vehicles, said Jonathan Arrendondo, a spokesman for the attorney general's office of Michoacan state, where the city is located.
An Associated Press reporter saw a 75-year-old man being treated for a bullet wound to the leg at one of the entry points. Witnesses said the man had been a passenger on a bus and was struck by the bullet as he tried to flee.
Later Thursday, armed gunmen in two trucks ambushed a group of federal and state police officer patrolling the Morelia-Patzcuaro highway, injuring three.
Such blockades have become a common cartel tactic in Mexico's raging drug war.
The practice started earlier this year in northeastern Mexico, where the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs are locked in a fierce turf war, and recently spread to Michoacan, home state of President Felipe Calderon.
Michoacan is a stronghold of La Familia cartel, which is known for beheadings and brash attacks against government security forces. It was the second time in less than a month that gunmen have blocked roads leading into Morelia.
The federal police have recently arrested several key La Familia members.
One of those suspects, Sergio Moreno Godinez, said under police interrogation last month that the cartel is in decline. He confirmed the authenticity of a letter, e-mailed to journalists and dropped on the streets of several towns, saying the cartel wants to disband and negotiate a truce with authorities. The government has ignored the offer.
La Familia, which officials say is Mexico's main trafficker of methamphetamine, captured nationwide attention in 2006 by rolling severed heads onto a disco floor in the city of Uruapan.
Shortly afterward, Calderon sent thousands of federal troops and police into Michoacan.
He has since deployed thousands more to other cartel strongholds in Mexico, and drug gang violence has surged, claiming more than 28,000 lives.
On Thursday, reports emerged that reputed La Familia leader Servando Gomez appears on the Mexican government's payroll as an elementary school teacher in Arteaga, a rural town in Michoacan.
Payroll documents posted on the Education Department's website show that Gomez, alias "La Tuta," was paid about $4,000 during the first three months of the year for teaching at Melchor Ocampo Elementary School.
But the Education Department, responding to a report on the documents in El Universal newspaper, said in a statement that payments to Gomez have been suspended since June 2009, when the department conducted "a thorough review of its payroll."
In northern Chihuahua state, meanwhile, six people were gunned down Thursday morning by the side of a highway leading south of the capital, also called Chihuahua.
Witnesses told police that gunmen drove up, forced the six men out of the car, shot them and fled, said Carlos Gonzalez, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
And in the resort city of Acapulco, a traffic cop was found shot to death on a road, his hands bound. The public safety department in Acapulco said later Thursday that armed men in vehicles shot at the headquarters of a state regional police office but no one was injured. The authorities said police chased away the gunmen, who set fire to a car as they fled to block pursuing officers.