Mexico vigilante group returns land to villagers amid ongoing violence

Lawless state of Michoacan has become top security issue for President Enrique Peña Nieto

Soldiers from the Mexican army patrol the streets in downtown Apatzingan on Thursday.
Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

Mexican vigilante militias battling drug traffickers in the restive state of Michoacan said Thursday they had returned several hundred acres of land seized from villagers by the Knights Templar cartel.

The symbolic handover of some 654 acres, which include avocado and lemon orchards, took place in the village square of Tancitaro in the Michoacan highlands.

"Citizens, businessmen, farmers, people in the communities are bewildered by these narcos. Let's get them out of our land," militia leader Estanislao Beltran told Agence France-Presse.

Civilians first took up arms last February to oust the Knights Templar from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to deal with the violence and extortion rackets.

Since then, government officials have alleged that at least some civilian militias were backed by cartels, with critics noting that they used unlawful assault rifles that gangs usually own.

Michoacan, where much of the population lives in poverty, has become the most pressing security issue facing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who inherited a bloody war on drugs from his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, in 2012 that has left more than 77,000 people dead since it was launched in 2006.

Mexico's federal police and army troops are currently waging a major operation aimed at wresting back control of Michoacan from the Knights Templar cartel.

Federal security forces have also clashed with vigilantes who have refused to give up their weapons.

On Tuesday, Mexican federal forces launched an offensive to take over security in the violence-torn western state, seizing the drug cartel's bastion and clashing with vigilantes who refused to disarm.

A convoy of 200 military and federal police forces rumbled into Apatzingan and disarmed municipal police officers in the city, which is known as a Knights Templar stronghold.

The federal show of force in Michoacan's rural region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country, came a day after the government urged vigilantes to lay down their arms, saying it would take over security.

After the display of government force, a spokesman for the vigilantes, Hipolito Mora, said his people would not seize more towns.

He said after a meeting with Mexican authorities that his forces felt more secure after the government action. But he made no mention of the vigilantes laying down arms.

Previously the vigilantes have said they would not do this until drug cartel leaders were captured.

In the town of Paracuaro, vigilante leaders met with federal police on Thursday to discuss how they will collaborate against the Knights Templar in the coming weeks, according to local media reports. Although the self-defense group agreed to help federal police, it made it clear it will not disarm.

The military deployment was ordered Monday after the vigilantes seized more towns and surrounded Apatzingan, raising fears of urban warfare in the city of 123,000.

Beltran said Thursday his militia group would not lay down their arms and would continue to try and recover land seized by cartels, demanding the capture of drug lords before any disarmament.

"We will never give up our weapons," Beltran said.

In the town of Buenavista, about 100 militiamen blocked some 50 soldiers for about four hours before letting them leave on condition they stay away for at least three days.

Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's new envoy to coordinate security and development in the state, warned that the vigilantes who have taken control of parts of the state could turn into the very sort of organized crime forces they are fighting.

Castillo said the Knights Templar, whom the vigilantes are battling, formed under a different name about 10 years ago with the same mission: to fight an incursion by the Zetas cartel. 

"You can start with a genuine cause, but when you start taking control, making decisions and feeling authority ... you run the risk of getting to that point," Castillo told MVS, a local radio outlet.

Beltran disputed that, saying the mission is to kick out the cartel, not become one.

Analysts say the government was happy to let vigilantes police the state until now, a risky tactic that could have replicated Colombia's experience with ultraviolent paramilitary groups.

"We can't combat illegality with illegality," Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told Televisa television. The purpose of the deployment, he said, "is simply to restore legal order in a place that did not have it."

Peña Nieto had already deployed thousands of troops and federal police to the state in May, but their presence failed to discourage more towns from taking up arms.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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