COAHUILA, Mexico – Four police officers were among nearly two dozen people killed after security forces engaged in an hour-long gunbattle with suspected cartel members Saturday in a Mexican town near the U.S. border, days after President Trump said he was moving to designate Mexican drug cartels as terror organizations.
The shootout happened around noon in the small town of Villa Union, a town in Coahuila state located about an hour’s drive southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.
Coahuila state Gov. Miguel Angel Riquelme told local media that four of the dead were police officers killed in the initial confrontation and that several municipal workers were missing. On Sunday, the Coahuila state government said that security forces killed seven additional members of the gang, bringing the death toll to at least 21, FOX News reported.
The armed group of suspected cartel members stormed the town of 3,000 residents in a convoy of trucks, attacking local government offices and prompting state and federal forces to intervene. Ten members believed to belong to the Cartel of the Northeast were initially killed in the response.
Riquelme told reporters the state had acted “decisively” to take back the town, as videos of the shootout posted on social media showed burned-out vehicles and the facade of Villa Union’s municipal office riddled with bullets.
A damaged black pickup truck with the C.D.N. of the Cartel del Noreste, or Cartel of the Northeast, written in white on its door could be seen on the street in an Associated Press photo.
Riquelme told reporters that police had identified 14 vehicles involved in the attack and seized more than a dozen firearms. Moreover, three of the suspected gunmen were killed by security forces in the initial pursuit of the gang members as they fled into rugged terrain, according to Reuters.
In the wake of the assault, the governor said that security forces will remain in the town for several days to restore a sense of calm. The town is about 12 miles from the site of a 2011 cartel massacre where officials say 70 died, according to reports.
“These groups won’t be allowed to enter state territory,” the government of Coahuila said in a statement.
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In early November, Mexico made international headlines when a drug cartel ambush killed nine Americans, focusing world attention on rising violence in the country.
The three women and six children — all members of dual-citizen families that lived in La Mora, a decades-old settlement in the Sonora State founded as part of an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were on their way to see relatives in the U.S when they were targeted about 70 miles south of Douglas, Ariz., by cartel members.
At the time, Trump called on Mexico to “wage war” on the cartels. He told author and former Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly in an interview posted last week his administration is “well into that process” to designate drug cartels as terror organizations. While the president did not indicate how the U.S. policy would change from past years, Trump said he told López Obrador that the U.S. stands ready to “go in and clean it out.”
On Friday — the day before the deadly gunbattle — Mexico’s president said he would not accept any foreign intervention in Mexico to deal with violent criminal gangs after Trump’s comments.
Riquelme on Saturday made similar comments to Lopez Obrador on how Mexico should handle the problem.
“I don’t think that Mexico needs intervention. I think Mexico needs collaboration and cooperation,” he told reporters. “We’re convinced that the state has the power to overcome the criminals.”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to visit Mexico this week to discuss cooperation over security, according to Reuters.
Mexico’s murder rate has increased to historically high levels, inching up by 2 percent in the first 10 months of the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Federal officials said recently that there have been 29,414 homicides so far in 2019 – up from 28,869 over the same period last year.
The release of the figures comes at a time when López Obrador is facing growing criticism for his government’s “hugs, not bullets” policy of not using violence when fighting violent drug cartels.