Assailants have thrown explosives at a police station in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, as a massive search continued on Wednesday for 14 police employees abducted at gunpoint on a local highway.
The attacks highlight a new turf battle between cartels for control of drug and immigrant trafficking in the state, which borders Guatemala.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, confirmed the kidnappings were part of a battle between two gangs, saying “nowadays that is the most common thing, that the groups clash”.
López Obrador said the men worked at a local prison, apparently as guards or administrative staff, though they are formally employed by the state police.
The spread of cartel conflict to Chiapas would mark an escalation. The state has long experienced land, ethnic, political and religious conflicts, but had largely been spared the drug cartel violence hitting other parts of the country.
The president has taken a paternalistic, non-confrontational attitude toward the cartels, and on Wednesday said “they had better release them [the abducted police employees]. If not, I’m going to tell on them to their fathers and grandfathers”.
Also Wednesday, police in the city of Tapachula, near the border, said two patrol vehicles were damaged in the explosion outside a police station late on Tuesday. There was no immediate information on who tossed the explosive, which appeared to have been homemade.
State and federal law enforcement officers conducted a land and air search for the missing police employees, who were forced from a van by gunmen earlier on Tuesday.
A video of the abducted police employees was posted on social media on Wednesday. In it, one of the victims said the abductors were demanding the resignation of at least three state police officials, including the second-in-command of the force.
The men in the video did not appear to be bound or show any obvious signs of mistreatment.
The police employees were traveling to the capital of Chiapas in a personnel transport truck when they were intercepted by several trucks with gunmen.
The women in the vehicle were released, while the men were taken away.
The abduction occurred on the highway between Ocozocoautla and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital.
Violence in the Mexican border region with Guatemala has escalated in recent months amid a territorial dispute between the Sinaloa cartel, which has dominated the area, and the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
On 19 June, a confrontation between the military and presumed organized crime members left a national guard officer and a civilian dead in Ocozocoautla, near where Tuesday’s kidnapping occurred.