MEXICO CITY -- The vigilante “self-defense” groups in Mexico’s Michoacan state on Saturday entered Apatzingan, the stronghold of the Knights Templar drug cartel, carrying no weapons but escorted by troops and federal police.
The vigilantes have long considered Apatzingan, a city of more than 90,000, to be a prime target in their fight against the cartel, which has wormed its way deep into the fabric of Michoacan society.
The vigilantes’ threat to take the city by force last month prompted the federal government to send thousands of troops into the southwestern state to avoid a bloody showdown.
More recently, officials agreed to bring the armed vigilantes under the aegis of the federal government by folding them in to a security group known as the Rural Defense Corps.
The autodefensas, as they are known, entered the city after 11 a.m. “Today the world will be witness to your liberation, Apatzingan,” said a message on their main Twitter feed.
The vigilantes also sent out a photo of one of their leaders, Hipolito Mora, meeting in the main cathedral with Father Gregorio Lopez, whose outspoken criticism of the Knights Templar has earned him death threats and a price on his head.
The self-defense groups and federal authorities are expected to set up roadblocks around town in an effort to catch cartel members coming or going.
Though some of the vigilantes appear to be sincerely interested in ridding their state of organized crime, there is widespread concern that others may be fighting a proxy war on behalf of a rival drug cartel called the Jalisco New Generation.
Late last month, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said that some of the arms being used by the vigilantes were being supplied by the rival drug gang.