Vigilantes who have challenged the government's authority in lawless Michoacan state held onto their guns Wednesday as federal authorities struggled to rein in a monster they helped create: citizen militias that rose among farmers and lime pickers to fight a drug cartel.
"They said they're not going to bother us, but they don't want us to keep advancing," said Hipolito Mora, head of the self-defence group in the town of La Ruana. The vigilantes now control the 17 municipalities that make up southwestern Michoacan — about a third of the entire state. "They don't want us to carry our guns in view."
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong denied that such an agreement was reached with the vigilantes.
"We made it clear that they cannot be armed," he said, though he said arresting vigilantes was not the objective.
This week, the government has beefed up federal police numbers in the rich farming region known as the Tierra Caliente, vowing to tame the area that has been controlled for at least three years by a quasi-religious cartel known as the Knights Templar. But the move comes after months of unofficial tolerance of vigilante groups that took up arms against the cartel, which started in drug trafficking and expanded to extortion and total economic control as the government failed to act.
With more firefights and violence over the weekend as vigilantes continued to advance, the tolerance is now being called a dangerous precedent inside the country and out. The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that the warring between vigilantes and the cartel is "incredibly worrisome" and "unclear if any of those actors have the community's best interests at heart."
"What they created was a Frankenstein that got out of control," Erubiel Tirado, a specialist in civil-military relations at Iberoamerican University, said of the situation, adding that the government has been allowing citizen groups to do its "dirty work."
So far the vigilantes have been more successful than the government, which has been sending troops to Michoacan at least since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon launched his assault on drug trafficking. When legions of federal police arrived Tuesday to take over Apatzingan, the farming region's main city and a Knights Templar stronghold, residents simply shrugged.