At least seven gunmen died in a shootout with police and soldiers in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz, state officials said Monday.

The shootout occurred Sunday night in Ursulo Galvan, a city in central Veracruz, the state government said in a statement.

Gunmen traveling in two vehicles opened fire on state police patrolling the area, the state government said.

State police, backed by army troops, engaged the gunmen in a shootout, killing seven suspected criminals, the Veracruz state government said.

Investigators are on the scene and gathering evidence, the state Attorney General's Office said.

Several firearms used by the gunmen were found at the scene of the shootout and turned over to the appropriate authorities, state officials said.

Veracruz has been plagued by a turf war between rival drug cartels that has sent the state's murder rate skyrocketing over the past 18 months.

The federal government launched "Operation Safe Veracruz" last October in an effort to stem the wave of drug-related violence in the Gulf state.

On June 12, police found the remains of 14 people stuffed into an abandoned SUV on the Alamo-Potrero del Llano state highway near Los Cuates, a ranch in northern Veracruz close to the border with Tamaulipas state.

Residents of Veracruz city were stunned on Sept. 20 by the discovery of 35 bodies dumped on a busy thoroughfare.

A week later, 32 bodies were found at three drug-gang "safe houses" in the Veracruz-Boca del Rio metro area.

The Gulf, Los Zetas and Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartels, as well as breakaway members of the once-powerful La Familia Michoacana organization, are fueling the violence in the state.

Veracruz, Mexico's third-most populous state, is coveted as a key drug-trafficking corridor to the United States, officials say.

President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006, deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and Federal Police officers across the country to combat drug cartels and other criminal organizations.

The death toll in Mexico's drug war stands at more than 50,000 since 2006. EFE