LA RUANA, Mexico – Two leaders of the main vigilante groups in western Michoacan state said Tuesday that they are pulling back from confronting the Knights Templar drug cartel because the Mexican government has promised to oust traffickers from the area.
The self-defense forces made a daring march late last month into Apatzingan, an agricultural city that is the central stronghold of the pseudo-religious cartel that for years has dominated Michoacan, a state that sends a steady stream of avocados and migrants to the United States.
The offensive set off clashes that left at least five men dead and hundreds of thousands of people without electricity.
Hippolito Mora, leader of self-defense forces in the hamlet of La Ruana, said he was coordinating with other vigilante groups and they had decided to hold off on further moves toward Apatzingan in light of a federal security takeover of the city and port of Lazaro Cardenas, one of the nation's biggest seaports as part of an effort to control cartel activity in Michoacan.
He said the self-defense groups would wait for the government to do the same in Apatzingan.
"I don't think we can do this now, because if we enter Apatzingan with all of our weapons and the Knights Templars are there it would be a mess," Mora said. "Women and children would die, and this isn't good for anybody."
The government announced Monday that troops would patrol Lazaro Cardenas, which is the country's largest port in terms of cargo volume and which has seen a number of huge seizures of precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamines.
Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, leader of a vigilante group in the town of Buenavista, said he was willing to give the government a week to make good on promises to curb the cartel.
"But if they (the Knights Templar) continue their extortions, their robberies, and their kidnappings, we will abandon the agreement we made," Torres Gonzalez said.
Federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez wasn't available to comment.
Since rising up in February against systematic extortion by the Knights Templar, residents of a half dozen towns that formed self-defense patrols have lived without access to Apatzingan, a commercial and road hub that is home to their region's main hospital and markets.
Self-defense leaders said they finally grew tired of the cartel blocking services and commerce in an attempt to strangle their uprising and showed up on Oct. 25 on Apatzingan's outskirts, armed and ready to "liberate" the city. They were turned back by soldiers who said they couldn't enter with weapons.
A convoy of hundreds of unarmed self-defense patrol members returned the next day and successfully entered the city, where they were met by gunfire, presumably from the Knights Templar.
Apparently in retaliation, suspected cartel members mounted coordinated attacks on electrical facilities, including power distribution plants and electrical substations, in 14 towns and cities around Michoacan.
On Tuesday, Apatzingan was peaceful but tense, with residents on the streets and trucks filled with limes moving in and out of town. There were frequent roadblocks manned by the military in the city and checkpoints guarded by heavily armed self-defense groups in the rural areas outside town.