MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexican authorities have finally served notice to vigilantes fighting a drug cartel in western Michoacán state that their illegal tactics will no longer be tolerated, starting with a string of arrests this week.
The change comes 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 aren't 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 the Knights Templars' 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 Friday on condition of anonymity. "We are reaching a turning point, a point of change."
The official explained that when tens of thousands of federal forces were dispatched to Michoacán in May 2013, 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.
Vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltrán said Friday the federal government still needs the self-defense forces to combat the cartel.
The vigilantes, who rose up in February 2013 against the cartel's systematic extortion of businessmen, 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 Michoacán residents.
The turning point came 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.
Beltrán, the vigilante spokesman, 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," Beltrán said.
But 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 Michoacán residents, the federal official said, and may have played a role in the murder of the two rival vigilantes last weekend, 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.
Beltrán, 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."
But he noted 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 Michoacán.
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.
But some businessmen 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.