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Mexican government faces vigilante groups, cartel in lawless, violent Michoacan state

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    Men carry the coffin that contain the remains of Mario Perez as they prepare to bury him in Antunez, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Perez was one of the three civilians killed a day earlier by federal forces after they tried to disarm men belonging to a self-defense group that is fighting to rid the Knights Templar drug cartel in a region of Michoacan state known as Tierra Caliente. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez) (The Associated Press)

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    Men belonging to the Self-Defense Council of Michoacan, (CAM), stand at attention during the burial of Mario Perez at a cemetery in Antunez, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Perez was one of the three civilians killed a day earlier by federal forces after they tried to disarm men belonging to a self-defense group that is fighting to rid the Knights Templar drug cartel in a region of Michoacan state known as Tierra Caliente. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez) (The Associated Press)

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    Federal police arrive to a burned pharmacy in the town of Apatzingan in Michoacan state, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Federal forces struggled to bring order to western Mexico as vigilantes battled a drug cartel, but the drug gangs appeared to be carrying business as usual Wednesday. In Apatzingan, attackers doused a pharmacy with gasoline, ordered employees out and set it afire, apparently to enforce a drug cartels orders that no businesses should open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

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    Self-defense group spokesman Estanislao Beltran speaks at a press conference in Tepalcatepec, Michoacan state, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Federal forces struggled to bring order to western Mexico as vigilantes battled a vicious drug cartel, but the drug gangs appeared to be carrying business as usual Wednesday; in the city of Apatzingan, attackers doused a pharmacy with gasoline, ordered employees out and set it afire, apparently to enforce a drug cartels orders that no businesses should open. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

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    Federal police patrol the streets of Apatzingan, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Federal forces struggled to bring order to western Mexico as vigilantes battled a drug cartel. The unrest is in a region of Michoacan known as Tierra Caliente, a farming area where vigilante groups have been trying to drive out the Knights Templar drug cartel. After a weekend of firefights, the government announced Monday that it would take on security duties in the area. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) (The Associated Press)

Vigilantes in violent Michoacan state insist they won't lay down their guns until top leaders of a powerful drug cartel are arrested, defying government orders as federal forces try to regain control in a lawless region plagued by armed groups.

Federal authorities find themselves struggling to rein in a monster they helped create in this state in western Mexico: citizen militias that rose among farmers and lime pickers to fight the powerful Knights Templar Cartel.

"They said they're not going to bother us, but they don't want us to keep advancing," Hipolito Mora, head of the self-defense group in the town of La Ruana, said Wednesday. The vigilantes now control the 17 municipalities that make up southwestern Michoacan — about a third of the state. "They don't want us to carry our guns in view," Mora said.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong denied any such agreement was reached with the vigilantes.

"We made it clear that they cannot be armed," he said, though he said arresting vigilantes was not the objective.

Late Wednesday, Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, executive secretary of the National Public Safety System, said federal police had detained two members of the Knights Templar. But the spokesman for the vigilante movement, Estanislao Beltran, said the self-defense groups were not satisfied with the arrests, saying the men weren't cartel leaders.

This week, the government has beefed up federal police numbers in the rich farming region known as the Tierra Caliente, vowing to tame the area that has been controlled for at least three years by the quasi-religious Knights Templar. But the move comes after months of unofficial tolerance of vigilante groups that began challenging the cartel, which started in drug trafficking and expanded to extortion and total economic control as the government failed to act.

After a surge of firefights and other violence over the weekend as vigilantes continued to advance, the tolerance of the armed citizen groups is being called a dangerous precedent inside the country and out.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that the warring between vigilantes and the cartel is "incredibly worrisome" and "unclear if any of those actors have the community's best interests at heart."

"What they created was a Frankenstein that got out of control," Erubiel Tirado, a specialist in civil-military relations at Iberoamerican University, said of the situation, adding that the government has been allowing citizen groups to do its "dirty work."

So far the vigilantes have been more successful than the government, which has been sending troops to Michoacan at least since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon launched his assault on drug trafficking. When legions of federal police arrived Tuesday to take over Apatzingan, the farming region's main city and a Knights Templar stronghold, residents simply shrugged.

"Police sent in from outside don't know where the criminals are," said the Rev. Gregorio Lopez, a Roman Catholic priest. "We know of 10 warehouses where they are hiding armed men. They aren't going to find them."

With no clear rules governing the use of the military in civilian law enforcement, soldiers have been slow to respond as the cartel has gone about its business in Michoacan, including taking over some mining exports to China, forcing civilians to demonstrate against police and extorting payments on a wide range of activities.

The vigilantes know who the criminals are, often with help from local residents who point out the thugs who have extorted money, stolen homes and cars, or kidnapped relatives.

The vigilantes kill without qualms and take enemies into improvised jails.

Cartel gunmen usually flee before vigilantes arrive in towns, burning vehicles to cover their escape. In each new town they take over, the so-called self-defense groups are greeted by dozens of eager young men who want to join the movement and "liberate" more towns.

The number of deaths in the yearlong vigilante-cartel conflict is unclear, but the state's homicide count has roughly doubled to more than 100 a month since September compared to earlier in the year.

Federal forces initially arrested vigilantes when they first rose up to take over some towns in February. Authorities called the conflict a fight between drug cartels. But as the vigilante campaign became more successful, federal officials started negotiating with the groups and in October offered to work with them to keep them from attacking Apatzingan.

The military and federal police had been providing patrol and helicopter cover for their campaigns in recent months, and stood by during the weekend firefights without intervening.

When Osorio Chong called Monday for vigilantes to put down their arms and go home, he got instead a standoff between the military and vigilantes that killed at least two civilians and spurred a human rights investigation.

The vigilantes have the support of locals for now and they have grown stronger and more sophisticated, but many rights activists and legal experts warn that they could simply replace the cartel as a new outlaw authority.

Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Right Watch called the situation "an improvised and even reckless government strategy."

State and federal government authorities already say some self-defense groups have been infiltrated by the rival New Generation cartel from neighboring Jalisco state, which is warring with the Knights Templar. Vigilante leaders vehemently deny this.

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Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon and Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.