December 3, 2019 / 5:04 PM / 8 days ago

Death toll from northern Mexico shootings rises to 23

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Twenty-three people were killed in violent clashes over the weekend in northern Mexico, authorities said on Tuesday, adding to the death toll of a bloody shootout that has intensified concerns about the threat posed by drug cartels.

FILE PHOTO: A spent bullet shell casing is pictured near the facade of the bullet-riddled town hall of Villa Union, days after a gun battle between police and hitmen, in the municipality of Villa Union, Coahuila, Mexico December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

U.S. President Donald Trump last week vowed to designate the cartels as terrorist groups, stirring fears that the United States could try to take unilateral action against them, and prompting the Mexican government to reject any intervention.

The multiple killings in and around the small town of Villa Union, roughly 40 miles (65 km) from the border with Texas, were one of the most serious security incidents since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office a year ago.

In a statement, the Coahuila state government said security forces had killed 17 suspected cartel gunmen in the fighting, an increase of three from figures announced on Sunday.

Four police and two unarmed civilians also died in the bloodletting, which erupted around midday on Saturday when a convoy of heavily armed pickup trucks rode into Villa Union and began shooting up the local mayor’s office.

The ensuing battle with police went on for more than 1-1/2 hours, and authorities seized 22 vehicles from the gunmen, including four that had been stolen, Coahuila’s government said. Ten suspected gang members have also been arrested, it added.

Lopez Obrador assumed the presidency in December 2018 pledging to pacify the country with a less confrontational approach to security, but violence has continued and Mexico is on track to register a record number of homicides this year.

Concern has grown over his strategy, which he says still needs time, since two major crises in the last two months.

Critics blasted the government as weak in October when it ordered security forces to release the captured son of convicted kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman under pressure from marauding cartel henchmen in the northern city of Culiacan.

Then, in early November, three mothers and six children were massacred by suspected cartel gunmen in northern Mexico, sparking outrage and revulsion at home and abroad.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is due to visit the country later this week to discuss cooperation on security.

Reporting by Dave Graham; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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