Mexican authorities on Friday finally served notice to vigilantes fighting a drug cartel in western Michoacan state that their illegal tactics will no longer be tolerated.
The warning came after months in which government troops and federal police tolerated thousands of assault rifle-wielding civilians breaking down doors, settling up roadblocks and taking over towns to oust the vicious Knights Templar cartel.
Civilians are not permitted to carry such weapons in Mexico, but police and soldiers have even carried out joint raids with the “self-defense” forces, who were initially well received by local residents tired of cartel extortion, kidnapping and murder.
“We are putting up the ‘stop’ sign” to the vigilantes, a federal official who was not authorized to be quoted by name said on Friday on condition of anonymity.
“We are reaching a turning point, a point of change,” the official said
The official said that when tens of thousands of federal forces were dispatched to Michoacan in May last year, they depended on the vigilantes to point out suspected drug cartel members.
Now, after months on the ground, military personnel have developed intelligence enabling them to capture or arrest several top cartel leaders.
“We are reaching a point at which we no longer need them,” the official said of the vigilantes.
The vigilantes, who rose up in February last year against the cartel’s systematic extortion of businesspeople, farmers and ranchers, soon grew to 20,000 fighters and chased the cartel out of much of the state.
The federal official said they may have been a victim of that success, fighting over the spoils of the cartel’s abandoned wealth.
The cartel had amassed an empire of businesses, farms and vehicles stolen or extorted from Michoacan residents.
The turning point came on Thursday after a top leader of the “self-defense” movement was charged in the murder of two members of a rival vigilante faction.
A day earlier, 28 vigilantes were arrested for breaking in to a cartel leader’s ranch and trying to take two dozen purebred horses.
Vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran denied that Wednesday’s ranch raid represented any kind of theft.
“They [the vigilantes] were trying to recover horses that had been stolen by the Templars,” Beltran said.
However, the federal official said the vigilantes “are going after the spoils of war” in such raids, which have been commonplace at cattle ranches, homes and orchards purportedly owned or occupied by cartel members.
The land and property takeovers have created divisions in the movement and among Michoacan residents, the federal official said, adding that they may have played a role in the murder of the two rival vigilantes last week, who were allegedly killed by members of Mora’s faction.
The official said local residents accuse Mora of demanding money in return for giving them back properties that the cartel had stolen from them.
Beltran, the vigilante spokesman, has acknowledged that some bad elements or even criminals may have joined the self-defense movement and that “later, we are going to have to clean ourselves up.”
However, he said the vigilantes had the courage to take on the cartel and said that the priority is defeating the remaining cartel leaders, now allegedly hiding in the mountains of southern Michoacan.
The vigilantes have acknowledged they take guns and vehicles from people they believe to be cartel supporters, and say they get voluntary donations from farmers, ranchers and business eager to recover their properties.
However, some businesspeople have been quoted in local media as saying the vigilantes are now asking them for fixed quotas to protect them from the remnants of the cartel.