MEXICO CITY – Vigilantes who took over the main government building of a small Mexican city in Michoacan state after a weekend shootout with suspected criminals were refusing to release 11 police officers held as prisoners, officials said Tuesday.
Michoacan, an important agricultural state in southwestern Mexico, has seen a number of armed “self-defense” groups spring up in recent months with the purported aim of protecting residents from the powerful drug cartel known as the Knights Templar. The groups at times have accused police and government officials of colluding with the drug cartel.
The vigilante groups have been a source of concern and embarrassment for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been hoping to divert attention from Mexico’s drug-related security crisis.
In the city of Paracuaro, about 300 vigilantes engaged in a shootout with a criminal group Saturday and took control of the main government building, according to media reports. One vigilante was reported killed. The 11 members of the municipal police force were held by vigilantes and remained in their custody Tuesday afternoon, the state prosecutor’s office said.
On Sunday and Monday, highways in the region were blocked by residents apparently upset that the self-defense groups had taken over, although vigilantes, in social media messages, said the Knights Templar were behind the protests. Paracuaro Mayor Lucila Barajas has asked the federal government to intervene to free the police officers.
The episode is indicative of the complicated and often confusing situation in Michoacan. The Knights Templar, who portray themselves as the true protectors of the citizenry, have come to control large swaths of the state’s economy. Their purported leader, who may have been killed in a shootout in 2010, is worshiped as a kind of unofficial saint by some locals.
Some of the new vigilante groups, meanwhile, are suspected of fighting a proxy war on behalf of the Templars’ drug-world rivals.
The Peña Nieto government has poured thousands of federal troops into Michoacan in recent months. In some cases, soldiers work in conjunction with self-defense groups that federal officials believe to be unaffiliated with the narco gangs.
On Monday, Michoacan Gov. Fausto Vallejo, a member of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, told reporters that he would push federal officials to modify their strategy. The state government, he said, would be changing its strategy to “impede the proliferation of, and eradicate, the self-defense groups.”
Also in Michoacan, two soldiers were killed in a shootout Sunday, apparently with criminals, near the city of Apatzingan. The day before, a plane carrying well-known self-defense leader Jose Manuel Mireles crash-landed near the town of La Huacana. He was reportedly recovering Tuesday in a Mexico City hospital.
Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said Tuesday that the cause of the crash appeared to be pilot error.
Sanchez is a news assistant in the Times’ Mexico City bureau.