Nine bodies, with their hands bound and signs of an execution-style shooting, were found Saturday in a remote area of Mexico's western Michoacan state, where drug cartels, vigilantes and federal forces have been fighting much of this year, the state prosecutor's office said.

The bodies were left together on abandoned property near the town of Buenavista along with a sign indicating they may have been members of the Knights Templar cartel, prosecutor's spokesman Alejandro Arellano said.

Cartel boss captured

A top leader of Mexico's Gulf Cartel was captured Saturday in a military operation near the Texas border, the second major capture of a drug capo in a month. Mexico's government said the army netted Mario Armando Ramirez Trevino, a drug boss in who had been vying to take over the cartel since the arrest of its top capo, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," last September.

The U.S. State Department was offering a reward of $5 million US for his capture. It follows the arrest July 15 of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, alias "Z-40," leader of the brutal Zetas cartel.

The area near the Jalisco state border has suffered a wave of violence for most of this year, as self-defence groups have risen up to battle the Knights Templar, which controls the territory with killings and extortion. Authorities say some groups are supported by a rival cartel, Jalisco New Generation, also fighting the Knights Templar. The groups deny that.

Arellano said the sign read: "For those who continue to support the Knights Templar, we are here, united." The note was signed with the initials of the New Generation, as well as the initials G.C., indicating a community-based, self-defence group.

The government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sent thousands of troops and federal police to the area in May to regain control of the state. While residents initially cheered the arrival and some self-defence groups agreed to put down their arms, the calm was short-lived. Even as the Peña Nieto government claims that killings across Mexico are down, it has struggled to come up with an effective strategy for Michoacan and neighbouring Guerrero states, an area known as the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, for its climate.

The government response so far has mirrored that of Peña Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who started his drug offensive as president by sending troops to Michoacan in 2006, and periodically thereafter, with little result.

The Knights Templar launched a co-ordinated attack on federal police last month, killing at least four officers and wounding at least five more.

They also killed one of Mexico's highest-ranking navy officers and a bodyguard last month when they ventured onto a local road in Michoacan to get around a highway roadblock. About the same time, residents in Guerrero were forced to flee their villages because of drug violence.

Amid the ongoing strife, the Canadian government designated Mexico a safe country of origin for refugee purposes earlier this year, making it more difficult for people fleeing violence there to successfully obtain asylum in Canada.