Mexico hunts for suspects who downed police chopper

El Chauz (Mexico) (AFP) - Troops and police hunted Wednesday for gang suspects who shot down a police helicopter in western Mexico, killing five aboard in a clash highlighting the government's struggle to quell violence in the region.

The suspects apparently used a high-powered, .50-caliber Barrett rifle to bring down the helicopter chasing them in Michoacan state on Tuesday, said National Security Commissioner Renato Sales.

"It was indeed shot down," Sales told Radio Formula, adding that authorities were "working to capture those responsible."

The pilot and three state police officers died at the site. The state prosecutor's office said a fourth agent succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday.

The helicopter's charred wreckage lay amid high grass and bushes, according to AFP journalists who visited the crash site on Wednesday.

It is the second time since 2015 that a gang has downed a helicopter. Last year, the powerful Jalisco New Generation drug cartel in neighboring Jalisco state used a rocket launcher to hit a military helicopter, killing seven soldiers and a policewoman.

A federal government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, told AFP that there is "suspicion that this cartel" also downed the aircraft in Michoacan.

The deadly incident near the village of El Chauz happened amid a resurgence of violence in Michoacan, a state once dominated by New Generation's rivals, the pseudo-religious Knights Templar drug cartel.

- 'Hot Land' -

Michoacan Governor Silvano Aureoles said Tuesday the helicopter had backed an operation to capture leaders of an unidentified gang after the suspects tried to abduct a farmer in La Huacana.

The confrontation took place in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), a region that has endured years of drug violence and vigilante justice.

The helicopter crashed in a mountainous area where local farmers grow lime and mango.

Authorities manned checkpoints leading to the area of the incident, which was cordoned off with some 200 soldiers and police keeping guard.

The federal source said soldiers, marines and state police were hunting for suspects.

Aureoles said Tuesday's incident followed a series of operations to capture gang leaders in Tierra Caliente and Sierra Costa that, since August 30, had netted a dozen arrests and several weapons, including two rocket launchers.

The Knights Templar terrorized Tierra Caliente until lime growers formed vigilante forces in 2013 to fight back against the gang, which murdered, kidnapped and charged the population protection taxes.

The cartel was weakened as authorities deployed troops and arrested or killed its top leaders, but smaller criminal groups have since emerged.

The vigilantes have been ordered to disband or join official police forces but some of the militia members have been implicated in crimes.

- 'A mess' -

A former self-defense force member, who now works as a police officer, told AFP that remnants of the Knights Templar and groups known as the Viagras and Trojans operate in the region.

"It's a mess," he said on condition of anonymity.

Hipolito Mora, a former leader of the self-defense forces, told AFP that the violence stems from power struggles after the capture and death of the Knights Templar's top two leaders.

"It's a fight among them. They are divided, they are killing each other, they are still kidnapping, they are still extorting," Mora said, lamenting that "corrupt" vigilante leaders allowed cartel members to join self-defense forces.

Homicides are on the rise in the state, with 678 murders in the first seven months of the year compared with 777 in all of 2015, according to federal government figures. At least 150 people were killed in July alone, a twofold increase from the same month last year.

Michoacan's cardinal and Roman Catholic bishops have issued a letter denouncing the rise in violence and the persistent extortion of citizens by criminals.

The state has bedeviled the Mexican government for years. It was there that then-president Felipe Calderon deployed troops for the first time against drug cartels after he took office in December 2006.

President Enrique Pena Nieto has maintained his predecessor's militarized campaign against the gangs.