Mexican authotities try to stop violence in Michocan state

Members of a self-defense group hold a position on a road near the town of Nueva Italia, east of the key city of Apatzingan in the Mexican state of Michoacan. (Ulises Ruiz Basurto / EPA / January 13, 2014)

MEXICO CITY — Armed vigilante groups who have risen up to combat the vicious Knights Templar drug cartel in the Mexican state of Michoacan were surrounding the city of Apatzingan, a main cartel stronghold, Monday morning and were threatening to invade the city, as Mexican government officials scrambled to defuse the situation.

“We have already circled Apatzingan,” one of the self-defense leaders, Hipolito Mora, said in a radio interview Monday morning. “I don’t know if we have the capacity [to take it] or not, but we are obligated to do it, and we are going to do it.”

The security cabinet of President Enrique Peña Nieto was meeting with state officials, including Gov. Fausto Vallejo, late Monday morning.

The federal government has sent troops and police to the region in recent days as the self-defense groups have essentially gone on the offensive, seizing control of a number of towns surrounding Apatzingan. Federal officials have given a kind of tenuous, de facto approval to some of the groups, in some cases allowing troops and police to work alongside the armed peasant groups at checkpoints in the region.

It remains to be seen, however, if the government can convince the groups to give up their plan to take the battle to the drug cartel in Apatzingan, a city of more than 90,000 that is the largest in the key agricultural region known as the Tierra Caliente, or hot land.

On Monday, a self-defense group spokesman, Estanislao Beltran, said in a radio interview that the groups would not negotiate with the government unless federal authorizes arrested some of the top leaders of the cartel.

The Knights Templar are active in the methamphetamine trade, but also run an extensive extortion racket throughout much of the southern Mexican state. Some of the self-defense groups appear to be legitimate expressions of citizen revulsion with the Knights. But others are suspected of being fronts for rival drug cartels who may be engaging in a turf battle by proxy.

ALSO:

Twelve guides die in Mt. Everest avalanche

Britain's Labor Party hires ex-Obama aide Axelrod to help in election

South Korea ferry sinking: Arrest warrants sought for captain, 2 crew

Cecilia Sanchez of the Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.