Mexican vigilantes expand

Townspeople gathered at dusk in the central square of this city of ranches and lemon groves, planning to pick a...

Townspeople gathered at dusk in the central square of this city of ranches and lemon groves, planning to pick a committee to support and oversee the activities of a recently arrived self-defense group here. The vigilantes gained acceptance when they recently ran off a cartel accused of everything from extracting extortion payments to making people it didn_t like in the community disappear.

_We don_t want any more missing persons. On every block there are one or two missing persons,_ says Gloria Ayala, a retired chemist taking part in the town meeting.

_People here have more confidence in themselves than the government,_ Ms. Ayala says.

But after a confrontation between government soldiers and vigilantes nearby left at least one person dead, questions are swirling as to how the government allowed armed civilians to take on the cartel-orchestrated violence across Mexico that federal forces are supposed to be fighting _ and how President Enrique Pe__a Nieto is going to contain the violence associated more with his predecessor, former President Felipe Calder__n.

The rise of these so-called _community police_ forces has been largely welcomed in Nueva Italia, where townspeople say they get little support from local police or the federal government when it comes to shutting down organized crime in their back yards; and the government_s crackdown on crime and drug cartels over the past seven years has produced few visible results.

The vigilante organizations have gained ground, marching on at least 15 municipalities in Michoac__n and also rising up in communities across neighboring Guerrero state. Mexican newspaper Reforma in March reported a presence of vigilantes in 13 of Mexico_s 31 states.

But when the federal government sent soldiers to seize weapons from self-defense groups in Michoac__n earlier this week, an initial attempt near Nueva Italia Monday resulted in a confrontation that left four civilians dead, according to locals (the government has confirmed one death).

_There is no doubt: the self-defense groups are illegal and should not be delegated the responsibility of combating organized crime,_ security analyst Eduardo Guerrero wrote in Reforma.

Trouble for the president?

The persistent expansion of these groups has presented problems for President Pe__a Nieto just 13 months into his six-year term. Pe__a Nieto has tried to turn the page on a period of cartel killings and turf wars that is more associated with Mr. Calder__n's tenure, than with his own administration.

Pe__a Nieto has preferred not to talk about security, which his administration says has already improved in vast swaths of the country. He has focused instead on Mexico_s economic potential and his agenda of historic structural reforms achieved in areas such as energy, education, and telecommunications.

Improving Mexico_s image abroad has been one of Pe__a Nieto_s top priories, and analysts say speaking of security problems could complicate the president_s message.

_Something the Calder__n people found out __ is that it_s very hard to control [the security] agenda, because they don_t control the other side,_ says Federico Est__vez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, referring to crime and drug cartels.

_The other side is capable of mayhem at any time and at inconvenient times and at times when they could extract a heavy price in public opinion against the government for what it_s doing._

Pe__a Nieto promised in his campaign to crackdown on crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, and to start a gendarmerie. The gendarmerie is not coming together as planned and anti-crime groups say kidnapping has increased over the past year.

The least worst option

Vigilante justice dates back decades in the forgotten pockets of Mexico, like the rugged hills hugging the Pacific coastline here. Peasant defense leagues also protected local residents in past years, Mr. Est__vez says. Villagers in Cher__n, also in Michoac__n, drove out their mayor and local police force in 2011 after illegal loggers, allegedly acting in cahoots with a cartel, clear-cut local forests. At least half the municipalities in Guerrero state, south of Michoac__n, have some sort of self-defense groups active, the National Human Rights Commission reports.

But the presence of vigilante groups presents a delicate situation, especially in Michoac__n. The well-established Knights Templar cartel has meddled in everything from methamphetamine labs to extortion to exporting boatloads of illegally mined Michoac__n iron ore to China. The group takes its gang-status a step further than most cartels, teaching from its own religious text and building shrines to its supposedly slain founder.

The recent confrontation between government forces and armed civilian groups here creates a confusing scenario for some: Are these vigilantes the good guys, or the bad?

_The government response has been contradictory,_ says Erubiel Tirado, a security investigator at the Iberoamerican University.

Senior government officials previously spoke well of the self-defense groups_ leaders and even met with them.

Talks continue between the government and self-defense group leaders _ who promise not to march on any more towns, but won_t lay down their weapons until senior Knights Templar kingpins are detained.

The self-defense groups say they are popular with the people, and that their arrival is applauded. They say they have no ties to rival criminal gangs _ something the Michoac__n government and opponents leading protests against them allege.

_To say [self-defense groups are] purely people that want to protect themselves is an exaggeration,_ says Father Patricio Madrigal, parish priest in Nueva Italia. Rival cartels certainly have reason to want to see the Knights Templar weakened, and could be taking advantage of the situation. But Father Madrigal adds that to his knowledge, any offers to vigilante groups by Knights Templar rivals have been rejected.

After Monday_s confrontation, the local bishop, Monsignor Miguel Pati__o Vel__zquez _ whose priests have supported the self-defense groups _ issued a blistering pastoral letter saying, _The army and the government have fallen into discredit because instead of pursuing criminals, they have attacked the persons that defend them._

Locals, many fearful to give their names, speak of crimes commonly carried out here before the arrival of self-defense groups, such as extortion, kidnapping, and rape.

Farmer Calixto _lvarez says he paid 1 peso per kilo of lemons [approximately $0.10 for every 2 lbs] he took to the packing plant and 3 pesos per kilo for each kilo of meat he sold to a slaughterhouse [about $0.25 for every 2 lbs].

_It got to the point that they couldn_t take deliveries anymore,_ Mr. Alvarez says.

He supports the self-defense groups and, like many, says he wants them to stay armed and patrolling the region.

_The community is angry,_ Father Madrigal says. He fears that if the government can_t keep citizens safe and simultaneously crack down on self-defense groups, _We could see a generalized uprising. We could see war._

The Christian Science Monitor | By David Agren

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