APATZINGAN, Mexico — Vigilantes who have challenged the government’s authority in lawless Michoacan state held onto their guns on 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.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong called Monday for the vigilantes to drop their arms and go home. But a new agreement with the so-called self-defense groups left them holding onto their territory and their guns, including high-caliber assault rifles that can only be used by the military under Mexican law.
The fact they had the weapons at all grew from toleration, perhaps even encouragement, of a movement that spread across Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente in recent months. Citizens have challenged the dominance of a pseudo-religious drug cartel that officials themselves have been unable to uproot.
“What they created was a Frankenstein that got out of control,” said Erubiel Tirado, a specialist in civil-military relations at the Iberoamerican University. He called it a schizophrenic strategy that allows civilians to do the government’s “dirty work.”
The government sent in its forces, vowing Monday to reassert order after violent days of repeated clashes between the Knights Templar cartel and vigilantes who were advancing, town by town, on the cartel’s stronghold in the farming hub of Apatzingan.
But many residents simply shrugged at the show of force. They’ve seen federal forces come and go since the previous administration launched a war on cartels in Michoacan in 2006 that failed to uproot the drug cartels.
Nor does the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto want to repeat the full-on attack strategy of his predecessor Felipe Calderon, which only got bloodier and less popular as time went on.
With no clear rules governing the use of the military in civilian law enforcement, soldiers have been slow to respond as the cartel has gone about its business in Michoacan, including taking over some mining exports to China, forcing civilians to demonstrate against police and extorting payments on a wide range of activities.
Authorities have arrested few senior leaders of the Knights Templar over the past year even as the cartel has come increasingly under attack by vigilantes, who are often accompanied by local residents who point out the thugs who have extorted money, stolen homes and cars, or kidnapped relatives. They kill without qualms and take enemies into improvised jails.
The number of deaths in the yearlong vigilante-cartel conflict is unclear, but the state’s homicide count has roughly doubled to more than 100 a month since September compared to earlier in the year.
Cartel gunmen usually flee before the vigilantes arrive in towns, burning vehicles to cover their escape. And in each new town the vigilantes take over, they are greeted by dozens of eager young men who want to join the movement and “liberate” more towns.
The Knights Templar apparently tried to reassert its authority Wednesday following the federal show of force by ordering all businesses to close, burning a downtown pharmacy that didn’t comply just blocks from where federal police had paraded in an impressive display of force the day before.
While the vigilantes have the support of locals for now, many warn that they could simply replace the cartel as a new outlaw authority. The Knights Templar itself emerged from local people fighting outside drug gangs. It initially told citizens it wouldn’t bother them and would only focus on drug trafficking. But it soon veered into widespread extortion.
State and federal government authorities have said that some self-defense groups have been infiltrated by the rival New Generation cartel from neighboring Jalisco state, which is warring with the Knights Templar. The vigilante leaders vehemently deny this.
They say they finance their battle with money that citizens formerly paid in extortion to the cartel, money given voluntarily — at least for now.
Vigilante leaders also say wealthy landowners in the rich farm country, a major producer of limes, avocados and mangos, have been financing their cause.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told local media Tuesday that the Mexican government is investigating the vigilantes’ financing. “Formal authority has made itself felt, and that is the main aim of all of this operation.”
But few believe that order has been restored, or will be anytime soon.
“They made a big error that we’re all going to pay for,” Salvador Vega, an opposition senator from Apatzingan, said of the federal government. “They thought they could leave things alone and it would take care of itself, that these groups would keep fighting until they killed each other.”