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updated 5/25/2011 5:57:11 PM ET 2011-05-25T21:57:11

Drug cartel violence has prompted as many as 500 frightened villagers to flee hamlets in the western state of Michoacan and take refuge at a shelter set up at a local swimming park, an official said Wednesday.

It is at least the second time a large number of rural residents have been displaced by recent drug violence in Mexico. In November, about 400 people in the northern border town of Ciudad Mier took refuge in the neighboring city of Ciudad Aleman following cartel gunbattles. That shelter has since been closed and most have returned to their homes.

Michoacan state Civil Defense Director Carlos Mandujano said about 500 people spent Tuesday night at the primitive water park in the town of Buenavista Tomatlan, with most sleeping under open thatched-roof structures.

Mandujano said state authorities were providing sleeping mats, blankets and food for those in the shelter.

Residents told local authorities that gunbattles between rival drug cartel factions had made it too dangerous for them to stay in outlying hamlets.

Rival vactions
The fighting is believed to involve rival factions of the Michoacan-based La Familia drug cartel, some of whose members now call themselves "The Knights Templar."

Mexico still has fewer people displaced by violence than countries like Colombia, according to the Norway-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which tracks such figures. It estimates about 230,000 people in Mexico have been driven from their homes, often to stay with relatives or in the United States. An estimated 3.6 million to 5.2 million people have been displaced by decades of drug- and guerrilla-war violence in Colombia.

Buenavista police chief Othoniel Montes Herrera said he has neither the manpower nor the armament to patrol rural areas frequented by drug gangs. Sending ill-armed officers out there "would be certain death, and we're not thinking of putting our personnel at that risk."

Violence in Michoacan has increased in the last few days. On Tuesday, suspected cartel gunmen opened fire on a Mexican federal police helicopter, hitting two officers and forcing the craft to land, though officials insisted it had not been shot down.

Federal police said the pilot of the partially armored helicopter decided to land after Tuesday's shooting "to avoid any accident." The Russian-made Mi-17 touched down about 3.5 miles (6 kilometers) from the shooting scene near Apatzingan, a city that which is close to Buenavista.

The two officers suffered non-life-threatening wounds, police said.

On Wednesday, federal police announced they had arrested a man who allegedly participated in the March 28 killing of Juan Francisco Sicilia, the son of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, and six other people in Cuernavaca, a resort and industrial city south of Mexico City.

Police said Julio de Jesus Radilla and two other suspects were picked up Wednesday in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz.

Officials said Radilla ran operations in Morelos state, where Cuernavaca is located, for the South Pacific Cartel, allegedly led by Hector Beltran Leyva. Radilla reportedly told police he fled to Veracruz after the killings to avoid arrest.

35,000 lives lost
The Cuernavaca killings sparked protest marches in several Mexican cities to demand an end to drug-related bloodshed that has cost more than 35,000 lives since late 2006.

The killings of Sicilia and his friends caused outrage particularly because the victims appeared to have had nothing to do with the drug trade.

Luis Cardenas Palomino, a federal police regional security official, said Wednesday that two of people who were with the younger Sicilia at the time of the shooting had suffered "an assault or a scuffle" with cartel gunmen 10 days before and ran into them again at another bar.

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they ran into the same people they had had a disagreement 10 days earlier," Cardenas Palomino said.

Police said Radilla, a stocky 34-year-old also known as "El Negro," resisted arrest and shot at police in the Gulf coast city of Coatzacoalcos before his arrest.

Also Wednesday, the Mexican navy said marines had seized ranches, houses, weapons and drugs belonging to the Zetas drug cartel in northern Coahuila state.

The raids Tuesday netted more than a ton of cocaine, and marines arrested a half dozen men who were guarding the drug stash. At another property apparently used as a weekend getaway by the Zetas, marines discovered a 100-yard (meter) long tunnel that was apparently meant to be used as an escape route.

Other properties searched in the raid included buildings apparently used to store drugs and weapons and workshops allegedly used to weld homemade steel-plate bulletproofing onto vehicles.

The navy did say exactly how many properties had been raided or seized.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cartels spy on cops from Ariz. mountaintops

  1. Transcript of: Cartels spy on cops from Ariz. mountaintops

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (Los Angeles): They announced a major indicted today in Tucson , Arizona , accusing a powerful Mexican drug cartel of using local people in the community to smuggle tons of marijuana using methods more like a professional military operation than a band of drug runners, and our cameras are there to capture the story. Our exclusive report here tonight from NBC 's Mark Potter .

    MARK POTTER reporting: In a massive show of force, nearly 200 agents and tribal police began an arrest sweep in southern Arizona . Forty-six people are accused of working for a Mexican drug cartel that allegedly smuggles hundreds of tons of marijuana to through Native American land. The Tohono O'Odham Reservation sits along the Mexican border near Tucson , Arizona . It's the size of Connecticut , but is sparsely populated. For most of the remote 75-mile long border there, this fence is all that separates Mexico from the United States .

    Mr. TODD SCOTT (US Drug Enforcement Administration): Typically a smuggler, smuggling group will move dope through this desert in either a vehicle or in a human smuggling train.

    POTTER: Authorities say Mexican traffickers increasingly use Tohono O'Odham land now to enter the US, forced to do so by law enforcement crackdowns elsewhere. Agents say on most of the mountaintops in this area within the United States , from the border to Phoenix , Mexico 's Sina Loa drug cartel hides its surveillance teams in caves...

    Unidentified Man: More pieces of communications equipment.

    POTTER: ...to spy on American law enforcement below.

    Mr. SCOTT: We estimate at any given time there's about two or 300 scouts working in these positions.

    POTTER: And this is one of those mountaintop caves called spider holes, where the Mexican drug scouts will hunker down day and night. This one's so fresh, they left behind some shoes and their sleeping gear. In smaller caves the scouts store water, food, tarps and equipment.

    Man: Up here, you've got a base plate for a radio.

    POTTER: The Mexican spotters use encrypted radios to direct heavily camouflaged vehicles loaded with marijuana and other drugs across the Arizona desert.

    Mr. TODD SMITH (DEA Agent): It's almost like a military operation where they're, you know, hand off to hand off, to person to person.

    POTTER: High above the desert, they are the eyes and ears of a powerful and dangerous Mexican drug smuggling cartel operating deep inside the United States . Mark Potter , NBC News , near Tucson , Arizona .

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