Mexican official pledges swift return to order in troubled state

APATZINGAN, Mexico Thu Jan 16, 2014 3:33pm EST

Estanislao Beltran (front R), spokesperson for the vigilantes, walks past photographers and camera operators in Tecapaltepec January 15, 2014. Vigilantes have been battling the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacan for almost a year, creating a major security problem for President Enrique Pena Nieto. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

Estanislao Beltran (front R), spokesperson for the vigilantes, walks past photographers and camera operators in Tecapaltepec January 15, 2014. Vigilantes have been battling the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacan for almost a year, creating a major security problem for President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Credit: Reuters/Alan Ortega

APATZINGAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico will deliver "immediate change" to a troubled state in the west of the country that has been shaken by conflict between a powerful drug gang and heavily armed vigilantes, a newly named government official said on Thursday.

The government this week stepped up efforts to restore order in the impoverished, agricultural state of Michoacan, where violence has stained the security record of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office at the end of 2012.

Large swathes of the state have been under the control of the Knights Templar drug cartel, but earlier this month, local vigilante groups began occupying much of the gang's heartland.

On Monday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong intervened, ordering the vigilantes to stand down, and on Wednesday he named Alfredo Castillo, a close ally of Pena Nieto, as federal government commissioner for Michoacan.

"The changes are going to be visible immediately," Castillo told Mexican radio when asked how quickly the government would restore order in Michoacan. "But to get to the ultimate objective ... that will happen as fast as is humanly possible."

The fighting in Michoacan this week converged on the city of Apatzingan, a stronghold of the Knights Templar drug gang where hundreds of federal police and soldiers moved in on Tuesday.

Late on Wednesday night, gunmen strafed the premises of the federal attorney general in Apatzingan, not far from where security forces were protecting the mayor's office.

The appointment of Castillo, who will have sweeping powers, brings the unrest in Michoacan a step closer to Pena Nieto.

The president has so far kept his distance from Mexico's security problems, preferring to focus on a series of reforms he hopes will revitalize the economy.

Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon, spent much of his administration bogged down in a fight to root out the gangs.

Though Calderon's government captured or killed many of the capos, murders increased. More than 80,000 people have died in gang-related violence since Calderon began his military offensive against the cartels in Michoacan seven years ago.

Homicides have dipped overall in Mexico under Pena Nieto, but murders in Michoacan hit a 15-year high last year and in October a local bishop likened it to a failed state.

Pena Nieto won office pledging to restore order in Mexico, but Michoacan has raised doubts about his security strategy and risks miring him in a messy conflict with no easy way out.

Although the government has ordered the vigilantes to stand down, the self-styled defense groups have refused, and security forces turned a blind eye to them around Apatzingan.

The arrival of Castillo strengthens the hand of the federal government in Michoacan, with Mexican newspaper Reforma running a headline on its front page on Thursday saying he had effectively "erased" the state's governor, Fausto Vallejo.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Leslie Adler)