Gunmen possibly linked to the Knights Templar cartel shot down a helicopter belonging to a state attorney general’s office on Tuesday, killing the pilot and three officers and wounding another officer.
The downing came amid a series of clashes that broke out in the restive Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan, a coastal state in Mexico’s southwest.
Michoacan, a focal point of drug cultivation and trafficking, has been riven by violence and unrest in recent years, as drug cartels, civil-defence groups, and Mexican security forces have jockeyed for control.
The fighting reportedly started in the early afternoon on Tuesday, when a group of criminals attempted to kidnap an agricultural businessman. Local residents responded to fight off the would-be kidnappers, leading to a series of gunfights in the Cupuán del Río locality in Michoacan’s La Huracana municipality.
A man called “El Papas,” who was the brother of Knights Templar leader Ignacio “el Cenizo” Rentería, was reportedly killed by Mexico forces in the fighting. Security forces were deployed in response, and around 6 p.m., the helicopter crashed in flames, believed to have been shot down by criminals using a Barrett 50-calibre rifle, a weapon considered specialised for use against vehicles.
“In the operative action an official helicopter that was supporting a patrol in a zone difficult to access by land has been knocked down,” Michoacan state governor Silvano Aureoles said on Twitter.
After the helicopter was downed, fighting continued, with criminals in the area torching cars on a nearby highway, local news site Quadratin reported Tuesday evening.
The incident is the second time since last year that a criminal group has downed an official helicopter. In May 2015, members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal groups, shot down a helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing eight on board, in Jalisco state, just north of Michoacan.
In Michoacan, the Knights Templar cartel, a quasi-religious criminal group, was dominant until about 2014, until civilian-formed civil-defence groups and the heavy deployment of federal forces combined to weaken the cartel. However, smaller remnants of it remain in the area.
The Tierra Caliente region, which encompasses parts of Michoacan and neighbouring Guerrero state, has been the focus of a special federal-government security operation, which President Enrique Peña Nieto has touted as a success, though violence in Michoacan appears to be creeping up.
In July, the state saw 187 homicides, more than double the 87 recorded in the same month last year, making it in effect the state’s most violent month since 2006.
The 771 homicides registered in Michoacan through July this year is almost as many as the 943 recorded all of last year.