Authorities have begun handing blue police uniforms and assault rifles to vigilantes in western Mexico, legalizing a movement that formed last year to combat a vicious drug cartel.
Scores of farmers lined up on Saturday at a cattle ranch to receive uniforms of the newly created rural state police force in Tepalcatepec, a founding town of the self-defense militias in the fertile agricultural state of Michoacan.
The units were also making their debut in the neighboring town of Buenavista, which revolted in February last year against the cult-like Knights Templars gang because local police failed to protect them.
“With this, we become legal,” said white-bearded vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran, nicknamed “Papa Smurf,” after slipping into his blue uniform.
“We are part of the government,” he said.
About 100 new rural police officers then sang the national anthem at a formal swearing-in ceremony in the town square. The Mexican government later said 450 officers were sworn in.
“From now on, you are in charge of defending your brothers, your families, your neighbors and anybody who can be harmed by organized crime,” said Alfredo Castillo, the special federal security envoy to Michoacan.
The federal government, which had previously only tolerated the vigilante group, has warned that anybody found carrying weapons illegally after Saturday’s deadline to join the police force will be arrested.
After authorities took down three of the four main Knights Templar leaders, the vigilantes signed an agreement last month to register their guns and keep them stored in their homes or join the rural force.
Vigilante leaders said they still had to hash out details like salaries and who would be in command, though they would work alongside the regular state police.
The militia has faced divisions among its leadership, but more than 3,300 out of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes have signed up to join the police force, officials said.
Despite the deadline, Castillo said the vigilantes could be granted a few more days to be deputized in other towns because of an unexpected high demand to join the force.
“I am proud of wearing this uniform,” said Arturo Barragan, a 35-year-old truck driver. “We are in a struggle that at some point must have a beginning and an end.”
The growth of the vigilante movement, which spread to about 30 towns and chased out many cartel members, brought with it fears that it could turn into a dangerous paramilitary force in Michoacan’s tierra caliente (hot land in Spanish).
The violence in Michoacan turned into one of the biggest security challenges to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who deployed thousands of troops to restore order last year and named Castillo as his special security envoy this year.
The transition comes amid deep divisions within the militia, accusations that it is infiltrated by cartels and the recent arrest of one of its founders.
Authorities have also found several cases of criminals posing as vigilantes.
Castillo said federal and state security forces, backed by the newly formed militia, captured 155 suspects dressed like vigilantes on Friday.
The movement’s leadership has faced turmoil, too.
On Thursday, the council of self-defense forces in more than 30 towns announced the dismissal of its chief spokesman, Jose Manuel Mireles, who was absent from Saturday’s registrations and ceremonies.