MEXICO CITY — Citizen "self-defense" groups that have emerged to fight off a ruthless drug cartel in the state of Michoacan should take steps to join the government security apparatus or disarm, Mexican officials said Thursday.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said during a press conference in Morelia, the state capital, that government forces have gained the upper hand since thousands of troops and police officers swarmed the western state and arrested several "important criminals" associated with the Knights Templar drug cartel.
The government's most recent quarry was Enrique "Kike" Plancarte, who was fatally shot Monday by Mexican marines in the neighboring state of Queretaro. Another top capo, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed in a shootout with government forces March 9.
But the presumed operational leader of the group, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, remains at large.
"We have delivered results," Osorio Chong said. The self-defense "groups that want to help will be able to do so, and those who do not wish to will have to return to their day-to-day activities."
Alfredo Castillo, head of a special commission formed to solve the Michoacan crisis, said the government would continue to sign up self-defense members willing to become part of a federal Rural Defense Corps, under military command.
Any others will be arrested if found to be carrying arms, he warned. In coming weeks the government will take down barricades erected by the self-defense groups at the entrance of many towns in the agricultural region known as the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, he said.
The government statements Thursday represent the latest move in the complicated pas de deux between the Mexican government and the vigilante groups, whose emergence last year has proved to be an embarrassment for the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
In January, Osorio Chong said there would be "no tolerance" for anyone carrying unauthorized weapons in Michoacan. But the government, perhaps fearing public backlash from an armed clash between security forces and vigilantes, eventually allowed the groups to keep their weapons and sought their help in identifying suspected cartel members.
The self-defense groups have been suspected of fighting a proxy war for a rival drug cartel. Two prominent self-defense leaders were arrested last month, each suspected of involvement in separate homicide cases.