Vigilante militias that have fought a drug cartel in western Mexico for a year entered a key gang bastion on Saturday, manning checkpoints and helping federal forces find criminals.
The civilian self-defense forces had their eye on Apatzingan for months, saying it was the “crown jewel” of the Knights Templar gang and a vital trade hub for the region’s lime and avocado farmers.
Vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran said hundreds of his colleagues manned checkpoints outside the Michoacan city of 120,000 to “check who goes in and out.”
Heavily armed men were seen making walls of sandbags outside Apatzingan, the main city in Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), a lush agricultural region.
Another 150 vigilantes were deployed with police and military patrols inside Apatzingan to search “all the homes” of suspected gang members.
The vigilantes said they had captured Antonio Plancarte, the brother of a recently arrested Knights Templar leader. Authorities did not confirm Plancarte’s detention.
Michoacan Deputy Government Secretary Fernando Cano said the vigilantes who went into the city were unarmed.
Cano said the vigilantes were all members of new “rural defense” forces that were recently formed under the army’s oversight to legalize the vigilante movement.
Fed up with the local police’s failure to curb the cartel’s reign of violence and extortion, civilians began to form vigilante units a year ago in Tierra Caliente.
The movement has grown since then, posing the biggest security challenge of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration.
Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops to Michoacan in May last year, but the continuing violence forced him to focus more forces last month in Tierra Caliente.
Late last month, the federal government decided to legalize the movement. About 600 have signed up so far out of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes.
Beltran said the arrival in Apatzingan was done in coordination with the federal government.
In October last year, the army had prevented vigilantes from entering Apatzingan with their weapons. Those who went in unarmed were met with gunfire.
The self-defense forces have seized several towns around Apatzingan since then, essentially surrounding the city.
The Knights Templar, a cult-like gang that claims to be the protector of Michoacan, has accused the vigilantes of working as a proxy force for the rival Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.
Some officials indicated last year that some vigilante groups might have been infiltrated by the Jalisco cartel. More recently the vigilantes have been seen as allies of the federal government.
The Knights Templar reportedly import drug precursors from Asia to cook crystal meth that they then export to the US.
The gang has also taken hold of much of Michoacan’s economy, demanding protection payments from farmers and shopkeepers as well as extracting iron ore that they then export to China.