Mexican vigilante groups refuse to lay down arms in Michoacan

MEXICO CITY — A leader of the vigilante “self-defense” groups in the Mexican state of Michoacan said Monday that he was pleased with the progress that federal forces are making in establishing order in the troubled region. But he added that the groups are not ready to lay down their arms.

On Sunday, federal authorities announced that they had apprehended one key leader of the Knights Templar drug cartel. But vigilante leader Hipolito Mora said Monday that the ragtag vigilante groups would not turn over their weapons until the government arrested more of them.

“The government is doing its job well now, but we need to wait a little longer, so they can grab the most important cartel leaders,” he said in a radio interview.

The newspaper Reforma reported Monday that authorities discovered the bodies of five people in a municipality called Susupuato. The victims, including a 1-month-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, had been shot. But it was unclear whether the deaths were linked to the struggle stemming from the cartel presence.

The self-defense groups, which emerged early last year, hope to drive the Knights Templar out of Michoacan. The drug cartel runs an extensive extortion racket and had come to control a number of local governments in Michoacan, as well as much of the agricultural business in the region called the Tierra Caliente, or hot land.


A week ago, the government sent a surge of troops and federal police to the region after the vigilantes began seizing control of communities around the city of Apatzingan, a key Knights Templar stronghold, and openly declaring their intention to attack the cartel members there.

The situation appears to have calmed since the arrival of the troops and officers, who now control 27 of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities. Federal authorities say they have detained more than 1,200 local police and are subjecting them to tests to determine their trustworthiness, since many locals suspect their local police of being enforcers for the cartel.

Authorities had also arrested 38 suspected criminals as of Sunday, according to a government statement, among them an alleged cartel boss, Jesus Vasquez Macias, 37. The government statement, which did not give the date of Vasquez’s arrest, said that he was apprehended in the city of Caleta de Campos, along the Pacific Coast, with two other men who were carrying four rifles, cartridges, a grenade and drugs.

Though federal authorities have demanded that the vigilantes lay down their arms, they continue to sport assault rifles and other weapons at road blocks outside the towns they have seized. However, a number of vigilantes told the Los Angeles Times last week that they lay down their arms when in the presence of the federal police, out of “respect” for federal authority.

Though there were some early standoffs between government forces and vigilante groups over the demand that they disarm, they now appear to be cooperating in some parts of the state.

Some observers are concerned that the self-defense groups are being backed by a rival drug cartel, a claim their leaders deny.

Twitter: @RichardFausset

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.