MEXICO CITY — Gunmen attacked a town hall in northern Mexico, authorities said Sunday, triggering a series of clashes with security forces that left 21 dead – most of them suspected members of an organized crime group.

The attack started at around noon on Saturday, when men in at least 14 trucks brandishing assault rifles swept into the town of Villa Union, around 40 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas. Authorities said they were believed to be members of the Cartel of the Northeast, an offshoot of the once-powerful Zetas.


The City Hall of Villa Union is riddled with bullet holes after a gun battle Saturday between Mexican security forces and suspected cartel gunmen. Gerardo Sanchez/Associated Press

The gunmen unleashed a furious battle at the town hall, whose facade was peppered with bullet holes. Mexican police and soldiers fought the attackers and then pursued them as they fled, according to the Coahuila state officials. The security forces, backed by army helicopters, chased down the gunmen in an operation that stretched into Sunday morning. The dead included four state police officers and 17 alleged cartel members.

The clash came just days after President Trump said he planned to designate Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations – prompting fierce opposition from Mexican authorities. Mexico fears such a designation could hurt investment and tourism and open the possibility of unilateral U.S. action in its southern neighbor.

Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he planned to meet this week with U.S. Attorney General William Barr to try to head off the terror designation and step up cooperation in fighting violence.

Mexico’s homicide rate is expected to hit record levels this year as armed groups around the country battle over drug routes, gas theft, extortion, kidnapping and other illegal activities.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who marked one year in office on Sunday, is under pressure to take stronger steps to limit the mounting violence. While highly popular, his approval ratings have been dented by a series of high-profile attacks – including a brief takeover of the city of Culiacan by Sinaloa Cartel gunmen and an ambush that claimed the lives of nine women and children from the LeBaron clan, an extended family of Mormons with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship.

López Obrador has adopted a pacification strategy that includes addressing the roots of violence with employment and school scholarships, while trying to use financial investigations to undermine criminal groups.

The Cartel of the Northeast is an offshoot of the hyper-violent Zetas, which disintegrated after its leaders were targeted by past Mexican governments. The cartel’s stronghold is Nuevo Laredo in the state of Tamaulipas, which is near Coahuila.

The Washington Post’s Lateshia Beachum contributed to this report.

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