Death toll in Mexican border region battle rises to 22

VILLA UNION, Mexico (AP) — The death toll from a weekend gunbattle between a heavily armed drug cartel assault group and security forces near the U.S.-Mexico border has risen to 22, the state’s governor said Monday.

Coahuila Gov. Miguel Riquelme said two additional gunmen died overnight.

He did not say whether they had died of injuries from Saturday’s clash or in subsequent operations. Police and soldiers have been sweeping the area surrounding Villa Union for those involved.

Around midday Saturday, a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying heavily armed men arrived in Villa Union and began shooting up city hall. Riquelme said state security forces arrived within an hour and surrounded the town, which is about an hour’s drive southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.

The town of about 5,000 people was still littered with burned-out vehicles Monday and the city hall’s facade was riddled with bullet holes.

“They wanted to send a message to the state (government),” Riquelme told Radio Formula. He said the Cartel of the Northeast based in neighboring Nuevo Leon state had made 15 attempts to establish itself in Coahuila since he became governor two years ago.

“We have not permitted the entrance of these criminals in our entity,” he said. “They thought they were going to enter, strike and exit, something that didn’t happen.”

Video posted to social media recorded panicked residents seeking cover while rapid-fire shooting echoed in the background.

Related: Border patrol agents working along the US-Mexico border

The Northeast Cartel is a splinter group from the Zetas, a cartel with roots in elite military units. The Zetas long dominated Nuevo Laredo and Tamaulipas state and were known for military-style operations and grotesque violence intended to intimidate their enemies.

“They’ve been looking to expand into Coahuila for years,” Riquelme said, though the Zetas long had a strong presence in the state.

Villa Union is just 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the town of Allende — site of a 2011 massacre involving the Zetas in which officials say 70 died.

The governor said that all hostages taken Saturday, including some minors, had been rescued. Cartel members had taken some locals with them as guides as they tried to make their escape along back roads.

The dead included 16 alleged gunmen, four state police and two civilians, he said.

Many of the vehicles the gunmen arrived in Saturday were emblazoned with the cartel’s initials as were their bulletproof vests.

Of the 17 vehicles seized, four carried .50-caliber machine guns, the governor said. About 36 homes were also damaged in the shooting, he said.

Mexico’s homicide rate has increased to historically high levels this year. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has faced criticism after a string of high-profile massacres that his government does not have a coherent security strategy.

On Monday, López Obrador praised Coahuila’s governor for his attention to security in the state. Later in the day he was scheduled to meet with about 30 members of two families whose relatives were among the three women and six children, all dual national U.S. and Mexican citizens, who were killed by cartel gunman in the border state of Sonora in November.

“We’re going to provide support to erase the signs of this unfortunate incident so that the people of Villa Union can return to their normal and daily lives,” he said.