MORELIA, Mexico — A clash between rival gangs left 29 dead in Nayarit, western Mexico, while more fighting further south has prompted the exodus of almost 2,000 people, local authorities said Thursday.
The clash on a highway in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit late Wednesday was one of the deadliest single events in more than four years of spiralling violence, mostly blamed on drug gangs.
Authorities raised the toll to 29 Thursday after a victim died in hospital, while three others remained in a serious condition.
Local media quoted witnesses as saying the rival gangs had exchanged bursts of gunfire and hurled grenades at each other for around an hour, as shops in the nearby town of Ruiz closed up and terrified residents took cover inside.
The El Heraldo newspaper said 17 of the bodies were found piled in the back of a pick-up truck, wearing the camouflage vests and black shirts favored by drug cartel hitmen.
Nayarit neighbors Sinaloa state, the cradle of Mexico’s drug trafficking industry and home to the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico’s most wanted fugitive, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The cartel has been fighting turf wars in the area for months with gangs including the Zetas and La Familia, experts say.
Further south, La Familia members were allegedly linked to the violence that provoked the departure of hundreds of people from their villages in Michoacan state.
Some 1,870 people fled due to clashes between alleged drug gang members and with security forces, said Osvaldo Esquivel Lucater, mayor of the municipality of Buenavista.
The army sent in helicopters to the isolated areas of the western state, where locals reported loud explosions.
“There’s now a strong presence of soldiers and marines in the area,” a military spokesman said Thursday, on condition of anonymity.
Despite the intensity of the fighting, only one corpse, of an alleged drug gang hitman, has been recovered, along with six guns. Local newspapers reported at least three dead, however.
Authorities set up a refuge for the families in Buenavista, in at least the second exodus due to drug violence in less than a year, after several hundred people fled their homes in Ciudad Mier, northeast Mexico, last November.
The La Familia drug gang dominates Michoacan, but it was unclear whether the clashes were due to infighting within the gang or with other groups, such as the Zetas, which are expanding across Mexico.
Mexico has seen an explosion in drug-related violence which has left some 37,000 dead, according to media reports, since the government launched a military crackdown on organized crime in 2006.