MEXICO CITY -- Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said Wednesday that the vigilante "self-defense" groups of Michoacan had "in no way" been allowed to expand on his watch, even though the groups began to emerge three months after his inauguration and have indeed grown in scope and power since.
Michoacan’s armed vigilantes went on the offensive this month, seizing control of a number of towns and communities and declaring their intention to directly confront their enemy, the Knights Templar drug cartel, given the government’s inability to root it out of the southwestern state. Peña Nieto’s government was forced to send in a surge of troops and federal police last week to avert a bloodbath.
Peña Nieto’s comments came during a layover in Gander, Canada, as he was making his way to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an event, he said, that would be a "great opportunity to promote Mexico."
The president’s take on the self-defense groups may be part of his administration’s desire to downplay the crisis in Michoacan, which has garnered international attention at the expense of news about the president’s ambitious reform agenda.
At the same time, the administration’s massive response in Michoacan demonstrates that it recognizes the seriousness of the problem there. Alfredo Castillo, the head of a new federal commission created to resolve the crisis, said Tuesday that 4,500 troops and 4,800 federal police had been deployed to Michoacan’s unruly Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, in an effort to keep the peace.
Federal forces have taken over the security functions in 27 of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities and have rounded up more than 1,000 local police, sending them to special centers that test police trustworthiness. Many local governments are believed to be controlled by the cartel, giving the criminal groups free rein to demand protection payments and otherwise harass and extort money from innocent people.
Speaking at a news conference, Castillo said the government had identified 26 cartel leaders whom it considered top-priority suspects. But he said the government’s most urgent goal in its war on the cartel was to snuff out the group's ability to do business.
"We are talking about neutralizing their operational, organizational, recruiting and financing capacity," he said.
For the most part, a tense peace has held in Tierra Caliente since the surge of federal forces. The self-defense groups, in some cases, are cooperating with federal police, helping them identify suspected allies of the cartels. But the vigilantes have also refused to lay down their arms until more cartel bosses are arrested.
The vigilantes are also clashing with the government about the way it is telling the story of the struggle. On Wednesday, vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran rejected a government claim that "isolated"
gunshots had broken out the day before in the municipality of Paracuaro.
Instead, he said in a radio interview, a four-hour gun battle had broken out between suspected cartel members and vigilantes. As of Wednesday evening, there were no reports of casualties from the exchange.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.