MEXICO CITY - At least nine suspected gang members were killed on Tuesday in the western Mexican state of Michoacan, which is falling back into violence after authorities said it had been stabilized.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's security commissioner for Michoacan, told a news conference the preliminary tally was nine deaths in two incidents.
In the former cartel stronghold of Apatzingan in western Michoacan, one suspected gang member died after being run over while attempting to avoid arrest as federal forces retook the mayor's office, which had been occupied by armed men, he said.
Eight others were killed in a gunfight with soldiers, Castillo added. All told, 44 people were arrested.
The killings come as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is buffeted by protests over the apparent murder in September of 43 student teachers in the neighboring state of Guerrero by drug gang members working with corrupt police.
Pena Nieto was in Washington on Tuesday where he discussed Mexico's security problems with U.S. President Barack Obama. The U.S. leader offered his support in eradicating drug gangs, but said it would be up to Mexico to resolve the security problems.
Violence erupted in Michoacan state last year as vigilante groups took up arms against local gangsters operating with impunity across the province. Earlier on Tuesday, Castillo said one of the gangs forced members to eat the hearts of murder victims as part of an initiation rite to root out infiltrators.
The government sent hundreds of extra troops to the state, and tried to co-opt the vigilantes into a rural police force.
Despite those efforts, the number of murders in Michoacan likely hit a 16-year high last year. A December shootout between two rival groups that killed 11 people reignited fears the government is failing to control Michoacan.