MEXICO CITY — At least 14 police officers were killed in an ambush in the western state of Michoacán on Monday, a sign of intensifying violence between security forces and criminal groups in one of Mexico’s most volatile regions.
The squadron of state police officers received an order to enter the municipality of Aguililla, where drug cartels have long held significant influence. Just outside the city, four patrol cars were ambushed on a main road. ‘‘Several armed civilians fired on them,’’ said the state security department in a statement. Two of the patrol cars were set on fire.
The government’s public security secretariat wrote in a tweet that it ‘‘condemns the attack in which 14 police officers died in Aguililla, Michoacán. We are in communication and we will make available to the state government all of our human and technological resources to find the aggressors and bring them to justice.’’
Violence has risen steadily under the presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who promised to address the root causes of organized crime, a strategy he has referred to as ‘‘hugs, not bullets.’’ López Obrador nonetheless pushed for the creation of a national guard, aimed at strengthening security in cities with weak local police.
On Monday, before news of the attack was reported, López Obrador had planned to devote a morning news conference on the topic of security, touting his own plan.
‘‘We are doing it in a professional way,’’ he said. ‘‘It is a new strategy where the fundamental thing is to improve the living and working conditions of the people, never again to disregard the Mexicans.’’
But Monday’s attack once again cast doubt on the effectiveness of López Obrador’s strategy. In August, there were 2,966 homicides in the country, the highest recorded number for that month. The national guard, for its part, now has 70,000 personnel, but many of them have been dispatched to Mexico’s southern and northern borders to deter migration to the United States, part of a bilateral plan with the United States.
Alfonso Durazo, the country’s secretary of public security, said on Monday that López Obrador had inherited a ‘‘chronic crisis of insecurity’’ from previous administrations. But the attack on police in Michoacán suggests that violence — particularly between criminal groups and the government — is deepening. The latest slayings mark is the largest number of security personnel killed in a single incident in recent years.
The Michoacán state police officers had been instructed by a local family court on Monday to take a woman and her daughter from Aguililla to Morelia, the state capital, as part of a judicial order, the governor of Michoacán, Silvano Aureoles, said in a news conference. State authorities said they were still looking into details of the ambush, which Aureoles called ‘‘cowardly.’’
Officials did not confirm whether any suspects have been arrested. In Mexico, the majority of homicides go unsolved.
The state police have been dispatched to several cities in Michoacán where the local police have failed to stand up to criminal organizations, including some places where local police are accused of collaborating with organized crime. As of last month, four state police officers had been killed while on duty in 2019. But many more have come under attack.
In 2018, 421 police were killed, according to Common Cause, a Mexican research organization. In 2019, 308 have been killed so far. By comparison, 47 police officers were shot and killed while on duty in the United States, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The US population is two-and-a-half times bigger than Mexico’s.
In August, police in Michoacán discovered 19 bodies in the town of Uruapan. Nine of them were hanging from a bridge alongside signs with written threats.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has gained ground across Mexico, has been outspoken about its intention to take control over parts of Michoacán. In one video, released in September, men claiming to be leaders of the cartel address residents of another of the city’s towns, Tepalcatepec.
‘‘This fight is not against the citizens of Tepalcatepec, but it is with El Abuelo and his cartel. If you want this war to end, take El Abuelo and his cartel out of Tepalcatepec,’’ one masked man says in the video.