December 31, 2014 / 1:17 AM / 3 years ago

Mexico questions 37 over shootout in troubled western state

Vigilante leader Luis Antonio Torres, alias "El Americano" (C), is embraced by a supporter as he and other vigilantes voluntarily surrender to state authorities to cooperate in a shootout investigation in the town of Buenavista Tomatlan, Michoacan December 30, 2014.Alan Ortega

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A chief suspect in a gunfight in western Mexico that killed 11 people turned himself in for questioning on Wednesday as the government struggles to impose order in a violent state it claims to have pacified.

Luis Antonio Torres, alias "El Americano," a former vigilante leader turned rural police commander, and nine others turned themselves over to authorities to explain their part in the Dec. 17 shootout in the town of La Ruana, Michoacan state.

The clash, which pitted gunmen loyal to Torres against followers of vigilante leader Hipolito Mora, has reignited fears the government is failing to control Michoacan, a state long ravaged by fighting between drug gang henchmen and vigilantes.

Mora, whose son died in the gunfight, and 26 others went in for questioning over the weekend.

Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's security commissioner for Michoacan, said the fact the 37 suspects had turned themselves in was a sign that "the institutions were being strengthened" in the violent region.

Still, murders in Michoacan are on track this year to surpass a 15-year high of 902 reached in 2013, when the Knights Templar drug cartel had such a strong hold on the state that the Navy had to occupy its principal port, Lazaro Cardenas.

Vigilante leader Luis Antonio Torres, alias "El Americano" (C), holds hands with a relative after he and other vigilantes voluntarily surrender to state authorities to cooperate in a shootout investigation in the town of Buenavista Tomatlan, Michoacan December 30, 2014.Alan Ortega

At the start of 2014, President Enrique Pena Nieto reinforced Michoacan and forged an uneasy alliance with local vigilantes, bringing many of them, including Torres, into a government-backed rural police force.

The partnership helped the government capture or kill several Knights Templar leaders, but the gang's talkative boss Servando Gomez remains at large and he recently began posting recorded messages online again in defiance of Pena Nieto.

Renewed fighting in Michoacan comes as Pena Nieto grapples with the apparent murder of 43 trainee teachers by a drug gang working with corrupt police in neighboring Guerrero state that has sparked widespread protests against the government.

Following the La Ruana shootout, security consultant Alejandro Hope said the situation in the state was worse than the government realized. "I think the first half of next year will be very difficult in Michoacan."

Since taking office two years ago, Pena Nieto has focused on economic reforms that have won plaudits abroad.

But the crisis of the 43 students forced the government to admit it had underestimated the threat posed by gangs, whose bloodletting has claimed over 100,000 lives since 2007.

Editing by Dave Graham; Editing by Richard Chang

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