Panic and chaos spread across western Mexico as the Jalisco New Generation cartel unleashed a ferocious coordinated attack on Friday after a possible operation aimed at capturing the drug cartel's leader, local reports said.
Suspected cartel operatives shut down highways with narco-blockades and set fire to gas stations and banks across the state of Jalisco. Attacks were also reported in four other western states: Colima, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Nayarit.
Authorities said late Friday an anti-crime operation led to the violence, which began with a 7 am emergency landing of a Mexican army helicopter after armed men fired upon it. Three passengers were killed in that incident, and officials said three others remain missing.
Two VICE News sources on the ground in Jalisco and multiple reports online said the violence erupted as a result of an operation aimed to capture the suspected leader of the cartel, Nemesio Oseguera, known as "El Mencho." The Jalisco New Generation cartel used narco-blockades in response to a major capture in 2012.
"The narco-blockades in Jalisco … are due to the detention of El Mencho, leader of the CJNG," tweeted Jaime Barrera, editor of the Milenio newspapers in Jalisco. A candidate for governor of Colima also relayed the unconfirmed statement.
Jalisco Gov. Aristóteles Sandoval did not specify any captures in a press conference Friday, but he did say that "the arrests will be reported by the federal authorities." At a press conference later in Mexico City, national security commissioner Alejandro Rubido García did not say whether anyone was detained in the operation, or identify the people in the helicopter who are missing.
Speaking before news cameras as distressed state authorities gathered around him, Jalisco Gov. Aristóteles Sandoval said a red alert had been activated as part of "Operation Jalisco," a campaign aimed at detaining "members" of a drug group he did not name directly.
Jalisco's government avoids repeating the Jalisco New Generation name. In recent months, the group has carried out brazen assaults on security forces, including an ambush on a federal police convoy that left fifteen dead.
Twenty communities from the coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta to the capital of Guadalajara were affected by the attacks. Four gun battles occurred, and blazes were set or attempted at 11 banks and 16 gas stations across the state. In all, 39 narco-blockades were reported, officials said late Friday.
Seven people were killed, officials said, including one police officer. By later afternoon, all roads had been cleared at the start of the busy May Day holiday weekend.
But the red alert remained in place and authorities said the situation remained active.
In one of the attacks, security camera footage from inside one of the buses captured the moment cartel operatives came onboard and made the passengers disembark before dousing the vehicle with fuel and setting it ablaze.
Sandoval implored residents to remain calm and requested that people not share information on social media that is not confirmed by state authorities.
On social media, local journalists pointed out that old footage of fires were circulating as if from current events. One falsified post also circulated suggesting an opposition political party was behind the attacks. Jalisco elects mayors and congressmen on June 7.
Candidates said they were temporarily suspending their campaigns.
"For now we ask that citizens remain calm, that they not share information not confirmed by official sources, that they not share information that is not from the official site of the prosecutor's office," the governor said.
(Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval addresses reporters along with grim-faced state authorities. Photo via Gobierno de Jalisco)
The attacks apparently began when armed men in vehicles on a remote road fired upon a Mexican military helicopter with 18 passengers, forcing it to make an emergency landing.
Three soldiers were killed, 12 other passengers were injured, and three remain missing, Mexico's army said in a statement.
"I recognize the courage and dedication of our federal forces in defending the safety of the Mexican people," President Enrique Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter after the helicopter attack.
"I regret the death of the members of the Mexican Army as they were fulfilling their duty in Jalisco," he added.
The US Consulate in Guadalajara issued a warning advising "American citizens to avoid traveling in the area and to stay alert to public announcements from Mexican police and authorities."
Canada's diplomatic authorities also urged Canadians in Jalisco to remain indoors throughout the attacks.
Follow @vicenews for updates on this story. Duncan Tucker and Victor Hugo Cornelas contributed to this report.