MEXICO CITY – Mexican authorities said Thursday they have arrested 11 suspected criminals disguised as vigilantes from an anti-crime "self-defense" force in the western state of Michoacan.
The arrests announced Thursday illustrated the murky nature of the 20,000-strong vigilante movement, which sprang up a year ago to combat the Michoacan-based Knights Templar drug cartel.
The Michoacan state prosecutors' office confirmed the detentions occurred Wednesday in the town of Ziracuaretiro, near the city of Uruapan.
A federal official who was not authorized to be quoted by name said the men were wearing "self-defense" force T-shirts and were carrying 22 guns when detained.
The vigilantes are largely farmworkers and farmers who had been victims of the cartel's systematic extortions, kidnappings and murders of local farmers and ranchers.
Because their weapons of choice — assault rifles — are technically illegal in Mexico, the vigilantes often carry two weapons for each man: an AR-15 or AK-47, and a smaller, legal sidearm or shotgun if police are around.
The federal official said some members of the Knights Templar cartel have sought to join the vigilante movement following its success in apparently clearing the cartel from many Michoacan towns.
"The leaders of the self-defense forces themselves acknowledge that they are infiltrated," the official said.
Vigilante movement spokesman Estanislao Beltran declined to comment on the detentions, but has acknowledged in the past that some former cartel gunmen may have joined the movement, and has called for an eventual house-cleaning.
It is often hard to tell who is really a member of the vigilante movement; their fighters move around in pick-up trucks marked only with "self-defense" slogans painted or taped onto the vehicles, along with the name of their home town.
It is unclear what charges the men detained Wednesday would face. The federal government recently announced it would not tolerate abuses by the vigilantes, who are popular in many Michoacan towns for shaking off the cartel's dominance.
But the federal official said the vigilantes — or the former cartel gunmen who have joined the movement — are now demanding protection payments from some Michoacan businesses, such as iron ore mines, albeit at lower prices than the cartel charged.
"If before the Knights Templar demanded $15 or $17 per truck, they are now saying 'give us $7,'" the official said.