Mexico now faces ‘Frankenstein’ vigilantes

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16 Jan 2019

Vigilantes in Mexico insist they won’t lay down their guns until top leaders of a powerful drug cartel are arrested, defying government orders as federal forces try to regain control in a lawless region plagued by armed groups.


Federal authorities find themselves struggling to rein in a monster they helped create in western Mexico: citizen militias that rose among farmers and lime pickers to fight the powerful Knights Templar Cartel.

“They said they’re not going to bother us, but they don’t want us to keep advancing,” Hipolito Mora, head of the self-defence group in the town of La Ruana, said on Wednesday.

The vigilantes now control the 17 municipalities that make up southwestern Michoacan – about a third of the state.

“They don’t want us to carry our guns in view,” Mora said.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong denied any such 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.

Late on Wednesday, Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, executive secretary of the National Public Safety System, said federal police had detained two members of the Knights Templar.

But the spokesman for the vigilante movement, Estanislao Beltran, said the self-defence groups were not satisfied with the arrests, saying the men weren’t cartel leaders.

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 the quasi-religious Knights Templar.

But the move comes after months of unofficial tolerance of vigilante groups that began challenging the cartel, which started in drug trafficking and expanded to extortion and total economic control as the government failed to act.

After a surge of firefights and other violence over the weekend as vigilantes continued to advance, the tolerance of the armed citizen groups is being called a dangerous precedent inside the country and out.

The US State Department said on 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.

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