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Mexican govt struggles amid rise of cartel-busting vigilantes


Vigilante groups fighting feared drug traffickers in western Mexico have won praise from locals, but the armed militias have become a headache for President Enrique Pena Nieto's government.


The vigilante groups of the state of Michoacan, whose ranks include humble lime-growers and immigrants returning from the United States, emerged last year to take on the ruthless Knights Templar cartel that virtually ruled the land.

They have reclaimed several towns over the past months, and this week succeeded in pushing the gang out of the city Apatzingan, considered the cartel’s stronghold, with the help of federal security forces. The Templars have reportedly taken refuge in nearby caves.

But rather than praise gains made in the battle against organised crime, Mexico's president has been forced to deny that his government has allowed the vigilante groups to flourish.

He tried to assure reporters travelling with him to Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday that the Mexican government remained in charge of security in Michoacan.

Residents of Apatzingan and nearby towns would beg to differ. When thousands of federal security forces descended on the largely agricultural area to disarm the vigilantes last week, the population rose up in protest.

For shop owners and farmers who were once regularly extorted by the Templars, the vigilante groups have been a godsend. They complain that local police forces were either powerless or in cahoots with the cartel before the heavily armed vigilantes arrived.

Worrying alliance

And now the vigilante groups may have found an ally in the regular Mexican army. Local newspapers reported that they fought alongside the army on Tuesday in the town of Paracuaro and the outskirts of Apatzingan.

The vigilante-military collaboration has set off alarm bells for some. Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Tuesday that Pena Nieto’s position on the armed civilian brigades was “very unclear.”

“It seems the government has been learning along the way, improvising the details of their approach against a very serious situation,” HRW said.

Besides the concern that ordinary citizens are taking over responsibility for security, questions have been raised about the group’s impressive weapons stock and its possible ties to other cartels.

“It is difficult to know if the group is sincere or if they are being exploited, consciously or unconsciously, by rival cartels,” said Jean-Jacques Kourliandski, a Mexico expert at France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

The current leader of the vigilante groups, Estanislao Beltrán Torres – known as “Papa Smurf” for his plump frame and bushy beard – has said that the guns were requisitioned from fallen Templars.

He denies receiving funds or any other form of assistance from either the army or any one of the many drug gangs that would like to move in on the Templar’s territory.

Turning over a new leaf

Members of the Knights Templar, who like to invoke the Crusades and quote from scripture, first appeared in Michoacan in 2006 with the aim of ousting the Zetas cartel but then ended up following in their criminal footsteps.

Some fear the vigilante groups could easily turn to crime themselves, now under the complacent gaze of the government. Others fear copycat militias could crop up elsewhere in the country, which has been devastated by deadly violence in recent years.

Pena Nieto came to power in December 2012 on a promise to take a new approach to security. He said he would concentrate on practical measures to reduce violence, rather than making a war on drug traffickers an end in itself.

He has also launched a national police force that he says will be less susceptible to falling prey to corruption at the local level.

“The president has begun certain measures, like creating the national gendarmerie, but he is also confronted with the reality on the ground,” IRIS’s Kourliandski said. “It’s just not possible to change things overnight.”

While Mexico’s government struggles to keep crime in check, the emboldened vigilante groups are gaining in both territory and popularity.

Michoacan’s armed groups have pledged to follow the government’s lead, but their continued success could threaten to erode that authority.

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