Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Armed men belonging to the Self-Defense Council of Michoacan stand guard at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town of Antunez, Mexico. The government announced Monday that it had reached a deal with vigilante leaders to incorporate the armed civilian groups into old and largely forgotten quasi-military units called the Rural Defense Corps as part of their efforts to combat drug cartels including the quasi-religious Knights Templar.

Knights Templar cartel beware? Mexico strikes deal with vigilantes.

Mexico and self-defense groups reached an agreement this week allowing vigilantes to participate in local police departments or form temporary military units. Is it setting a dangerous precedent?

Nearly a year after vigilante groups decided to go it alone against a growing presence of drug cartels in the western state of Michoacán, group leaders accepted an offer from the federal government to join formal law enforcement efforts. 

The agreement this week aims to contain the advance of informal self-defense groups, which entered at least 15 communities over the past 11 months in an attempt to expel members of the Knights Templar. The drug cartel has been accused of crimes throughout the state, ranging from rape to kidnap to extortion – despite proclaiming a quasi-religious creed.

“It’s a vote of confidence in the government from the self-defense groups, and from the authorities in the self-defense groups,” Alfredo Castillo, federal commissioner for security in Michaocán, told MVS radio this morning.

However, not everyone is certain the deal will stick, and some worry about the signal the government is sending by working with people who operate outside the law.

“I question if now any person could believe that this – the Michoacán example – is the road to becoming an authority,” columnist Carlos Puig wrote in the newspaper Milenio.

'El Tio'

A lack of confidence in Mexican authorities has long been the norm in Michoacán, where former President Felipe Calderón started the country’s crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime in December 2006. But many locals felt the government and local police failed to curb violence and crime, and took up arms themselves to take safety and order into their own hands.

The groups marched on municipalities throughout the region until the federal government called on them to disarm earlier this month, sending soldiers to seize their weapons, leading to at least two casualties. The vigilantes resisted the call to disarm; many said they wouldn't until authorities proved they were clamping down on cartel activity by arresting senior leaders.

In the past two weeks, the authorities announced the capture of more than 100 suspects. And on Monday morning soldiers detained Dionisio Loya Plancarte, a Knights Templar leader known as “El Tio” or “The Uncle,” who was hiding in a closet in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán.

“There’s now a desire [on the part of the Federal Police] to get to work,” Estanislao Beltrán, a lemon farmer-turned self-defense group leader told The Christian Science Monitor over the phone today.

You can see this push “with the detentions [of cartel members] and by how the government is willing to coordinate with us. We’re passing along information to them, all the information that people have given us,” Mr. Beltrán says, emphasizing the role he and other vigilantes can serve for state and federal  forces.

The deal

The Mexican government and self-defense groups reached an agreement on Monday in the municipality of Tepalcatepec, 340 miles west of Mexico City, which would allow vigilantes to participate in local police departments or form temporary military units known as Rural Defense Corps. The vigilantes can keep their weapons – so long as defense officials deem the guns legal – and the federal government will supply equipment for communications and transportation.  

“We have no interest in weapons. We want them to put an end to this organized crime and we’ll go back to our work,” Beltrán says. 

Despite the agreement, self-defense groups continued marching on communities near the city of Uruapan, local media reported on Monday.

Beltrán was noncommittal about how closely the self-defense groups will adhere to this new agreement, saying, “The communities themselves will determine if we advance or not.”

The deal between the government and self-defense forces highlighted once again the shortcomings of Mexico’s security situation – something President Enrique Peña Nieto has preferred not to speak of during his first 14 months in office. Some questioned if the self-defense groups may even be getting duped.

“I don’t believe this agreement. I have my doubts,” says Father Andrés Larios, one of the Catholic priests in Michoacan. “The government was scared because they saw that people in these communities could do things on their own…. It’s a way of controlling them and manipulating them.”

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