MEXICO CITY (AP) — Drug cartel violence has forced hundreds of people to flee their villages in the mountains near Mexico's southern Pacific coast, amid a new surge in gang confrontations that left bodies littered around the region, authorities said Friday.
The development comes just days after the arrest of one of Mexico's bloodiest capos, Zetas cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, near the U.S. border. Better known as "Z-40," Trevino Morales was taken by helicopter to an undisclosed maximum-security prison Friday.
An official in the federal prosecutors' office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the case, said the prisoner now faces formal charges, but did not specify which. Soon after the arrest Monday, federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said Trevino Morales would be charged with homicide, torture, organized crime, money laundering, weapons possession and drug trafficking.
The prosecution official also confirmed that one of the alleged leaders of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, Victor Delgado Renteria, had been arrested last week near the western city of Guadalajara.
Some Mexicans had expressed hopes the arrest of Trevino Morales could bring a decrease in drug bloodshed, but violence has only increased along the southern Pacific coast, in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero. Mexico has often experienced such ups-and-downs before as drug violence calmed in one previously bloodied region only to swell in another.
Jalisco New Generation has been battling the Michoacan-based Knights Templar cartel for control of the southern region. Residents said the latest battles appeared tied to the discovery Friday of four bodies hanging from a bridge in the town of Buenavista, where people rose up in arms against the Knights Templar gang in February.
It was unclear whether the self-defense squad in Buenavista had any relation to the deaths, which came a day after five other bullet-ridden bodies were found on a road near Buenavista, some with gunshots to the head.
The Michoacan state prosecutor's office said all of the men had been shot to death, but offered no motive for the killings. But Hipolito Mora, leader of another self-defense squad in the nearby town of La Ruana, said the deaths appeared to be part of the battle between the two rival cartels.
"It look like a war has broken out," said Mora. "I think it is between the Knights Templar and Jalisco New Generation."
Even heavily armed federal police convoys traveling on major highways have come under attack. On Thursday, gunmen fired on a convoy of eight federal police trucks near a highway tollbooth, killing three officers and wounding three others before escaping into the hills.
Such brazen attacks also occurred in Michoacan in 2006 and 2009, and usually marked an upswing in violence.
The turf battles appear to be spilling over into the neighboring state of Guerrero, where hundreds of residents of isolated mountain villages have been forced to flee their homes.
"There has been what we call a 'cockroach' effect," Guerrero state government spokesman Jose Villanueva said. "Amid the crackdown on crime in Michoacan, the criminals spill over into the border areas of neighboring states, like the border areas of Guerrero."
In late May, a video posted on social media sites showed dozens of masked, heavily armed gunmen who described themselves as members of Jalisco New Generation and said they had set up operations in Guerrero to fight incursions there by the Knights Templar.
Villanueva said he could not confirm whether the video was authentic or whether Jalisco had entered Guerrero, but he acknowledged that several gangs were operating in the state, especially in the mountainous areas near the Michoacan border.
He said that in the rural township of San Miguel Totolapan, about 500 people had fled their homes amid increased shootouts in the area. He said drug cartels were a major factor in those confrontations, although the area has also experienced conflicts over land and logging disputes.
The state government said in a press statement that it was providing food and shelter for about 120 families from three outlying villages in San Miguel Totolapan, which functions as a sort of county seat.
Some of the displaced people have started to return to their communities, and the state said federal and state police and army patrols had been sent into the township "to guarantee the safety of these families."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.