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Mexico cartel shootout leaves 28 dead

MORELIA, Mexico - Gunmen apparently from two rival drug gangs fought a ferocious gun battle on a highway in a western Mexico state that killed 28 men Wednesday, authorities said.

The attorney general's office in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit said the gunfight started about 5 p.m. near the town of Ruiz, 500 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Police initially responded to a citizen complaint of a kidnapping by a group of armed men in a nearby city who reportedly fled on the federal highway, the prosecutors office said. As the officers headed toward the scene, they heard a second report of a shootout involving the same men, it said.

Police found 28 men lying dead and four others wounded when they arrived. Ten vehicles were abandoned and bullet casings from high-powered weapons were scattered about.

The statement released late Wednesday by the attorney general's office gave no further details.

Earlier in the day, an official in the nearby western state of Michoacan said drug cartel violence had prompted as many as 700 frightened villagers there to flee hamlets and take refuge at five shelters set up at a church, event hall, recreation center and schools.

It is at least the second time a large number of rural residents have been displaced by recent drug violence in Mexico. In November, about 400 people in the northern border town of Ciudad Mier took refuge in the neighboring city of Ciudad Aleman following cartel gun battles. That shelter has since been closed and most have returned to their homes.

Michoacan state Civil Defense Director Carlos Mandujano said about 700 people spent Tuesday night at the primitive water park in the town of Buenavista Tomatlan, with most sleeping under open thatched-roof structures.

Mandujano said state authorities were providing sleeping mats, blankets and food for those in the shelter.

Residents told local authorities that gun battles between rival drug cartel factions had made it too dangerous for them to stay in outlying hamlets. The latest reports are arsonists burning avocado farms in the nearby town of Acahuato.

"We woke up with fear (on Monday), but things appeared to have quieted down. It wasn't until later that morning that we saw SUVs with armed men driving by very fast and shooting at each other," said a woman who did not want to be named for security reasons.

Several displaced people said they would stay at the shelters all week before considering going back to their villages.

"I am not scared, but my children are," said a mother, who asked not to be quoted by name because of fear of retaliation.

The fighting in Michoacan is believed to involve rival factions of the Michoacan-based La Familia drug cartel, some of whose members now call themselves "The Knights Templar."

Mexico still has fewer people displaced by violence than countries like Colombia, according to the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which tracks such figures. It estimates about 230,000 people in Mexico have been driven from their homes, often to stay with relatives or in the United States. An estimated 3.6 million to 5.2 million people have been displaced by decades of drug- and guerrilla-war violence in Colombia.

Buenavista police chief Othoniel Montes Herrera said he has neither the manpower nor the armament to patrol rural areas frequented by drug gangs. Sending ill-armed officers out there "would be certain death, and we're not thinking of putting our personnel at that risk."

Violence in Michoacan has increased in the last few days. On Tuesday, suspected cartel gunmen opened fire on a Mexican federal police helicopter, hitting two officers and forcing the craft to land, though officials insisted it had not been shot down.

Federal police said the pilot of the partially armored helicopter decided to land after Tuesday's shooting "to avoid any accident." The Russian-made Mi-17 touched down about 3.5 miles from the shooting scene near Apatzingan, a city that which is close to Buenavista.

The two officers suffered non-life-threatening wounds, police said.

On Wednesday, federal police announced they had arrested a man who allegedly participated in the March 28 killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, and six other people in Cuernavaca, a resort and industrial city south of Mexico City.

Police said Julio de Jesus Radilla and two other suspects were picked up Wednesday in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz.

Officials said Radilla ran operations in Morelos state, where Cuernavaca is located, for the South Pacific Cartel, allegedly led by Hector Beltran Leyva. Radilla reportedly told police he fled to Veracruz after the killings to avoid arrest.

The Cuernavaca killings sparked protest marches in several Mexican cities to demand an end to drug-related bloodshed that has cost more than 35,000 lives since late 2006.

The killings of Sicilia and his friends caused outrage particularly because the victims appeared to have had nothing to do with the drug trade.

Luis Cardenas Palomino, a federal police regional security official, said Wednesday that two of people who were with the younger Sicilia at the time of the shooting had suffered "an assault or a scuffle" with cartel gunmen 10 days before and ran into them again at another bar.

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they ran into the same people they had had a disagreement 10 days earlier," Cardenas Palomino said.

Police said Radilla, a stocky 34-year-old also known as "El Negro," resisted arrest and shot at police in the Gulf coast city of Coatzacoalcos before his arrest.

Also Wednesday, the Mexican navy said marines had seized ranches, houses, weapons and drugs belonging to the Zetas drug cartel in northern Coahuila state.

The raids Tuesday netted more than a ton of cocaine, and marines arrested a half dozen men who were guarding the drug stash. At another property apparently used as a weekend getaway by the Zetas, marines discovered a 100-yard long tunnel that was apparently meant to be used as an escape route.

Other properties searched in the raid included buildings apparently used to store drugs and weapons and workshops allegedly used to weld homemade steel-plate bulletproofing onto vehicles.

The navy did not say exactly how many properties had been raided or seized.

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