MEXICO CITY — Mexican troops and federal police poured into the state of Michoacan on Tuesday in an attempt to restore order after clashes with the rural "self-defense" groups that at times have been their allies against the Knights Templar drug cartel.
The standoff with the vigilantes amounts to a policy and public relations nightmare for a federal government that has long accorded mythic status to the Mexican campesino who takes up arms to combat injustice. The Michoacan vigilantes have embraced the image, though there is widespread suspicion that at least some of the locals are secretly backed by rivals in the deadly drug game.
Some analysts say the Mexican government is paying the price for failing to disarm the vigilante groups when they began to spring up last year in a number of regions, particularly in Michoacan and the bordering state of Guerrero.
Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist with Reforma newspaper, criticized authorities Tuesday for ceding their monopoly on the use of force — something, he said, "the state never should have lost."
Vigilante leaders refused to obey a government order to disarm, raising the specter of more violent confrontations with government forces: a distressing scenario, given that both groups share, at least theoretically, a common enemy in the drug cartel.
Twelve people were killed in clashes late Monday outside the city of Apatzingan, a Knights Templar stronghold, according to one unconfirmed media report. In recent days, rural vigilantes have surrounded the city, harboring plans to attack the cartel. Government helicopters and military personnel carriers Tuesday swarmed Apatzingan, a city of more than 90,000 people, carrying out the government's pledge the day before to take control.
Jesus Murillo Karam, the Mexican attorney general, said in a TV interview that there had been "at least one" clash between federal forces and the vigilantes in the region. Federal officials, however, had not released casualty figures as of late Tuesday.
Mexico's national human rights commission said that it was investigating the deaths of three adult civilians and a boy in the town of Antunez, near Apatzingan. The commission was apparently referring to a vigilante spokesman's allegation that four civilians were killed by troops after residents blocked a road and demanded that the troops return weapons they had confiscated from the vigilantes.
Mexican media reported Tuesday that federal forces had begun disarming municipal police forces in Apatzingan and the city of Uruapan, more than an hour's drive north. Many municipal police forces in the region are suspected of having ties to the drug cartels, or are considered too weak to effectively combat them.
Leaders of self-defense groups insisted that they would not comply with the demand that they lay down their arms, arguing that the government had not neutralized the drug lords.
"Look, at no time are we going to hand over our arms when [the government] hasn't detained a single leader of the Knights Templar," vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran said in a radio interview.
Though federal authorities cracked down on a few self-defense groups in Guerrero last summer, the government eventually decided to let them continue patrolling their communities. Members often ride in the beds of pickup trucks, bearing weapons as varied as antique rifles and AK-47s.
The government may have felt that the vigilantes were a helpful tool, an affordable means of destabilizing the Knights Templar, which had spread across great swaths of Michoacan and inserted extortion in some of the most minor rural business dealings. Government officials also may have been wary of crushing the vigilantes for public relations reasons, given the echoes of cherished rural uprisings dating to the Mexican Revolution.
Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said that co-opting potential threats was a favored tactic of President Enrique Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, especially from 1929 to 2000, when it ruled Mexico in a quasi-authoritarian manner.
"This is their way of accommodating dissent and taming it. This is the old PRI, the old Mexico," Estevez said. "Why didn't they go in and disarm them? That's not the way the PRI works."
The failure of the strategy this time was made evident in Michoacan in recent weeks as the vigilantes took the initiative to surround Apatzingan and declare their intention to take the fight directly to the Knights Templar there.
The larger failure was the government's inability to beat back the drug cartel and shore up the failing state and local governments that allowed the drug lords to flourish.
Roderic Ai Camp, a government professor and Mexico expert at Claremont McKenna College, said the Mexican officer corps is likely to be angry about squaring off against their fellow countrymen, some of whom may have a legitimate beef with the way their region has been governed.
It is reasonable to expect that with the surge of troops into Michoacan, there will also be a surge of backroom diplomacy, with the government hoping to persuade unruly campesinos to go home.