Mexico Negotiates Disarmament of Vigilante Groups

An armed resident - a member of a vigilante group - is seen at a check point at the entrance of Buenavista Tomatlan, during an operation to search for criminals in the area called Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) in Michoacan State, Mexico on May 21, 2013.

Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Vigilante groups in Mexico´s troubled Michoacan state could cease to exist by May 11, if an agreement between the leaders of these organizations and the Mexican government is properly implemented.

Under the agreement, which was made on Monday night in the town of La Ruana, vigilante leaders said they would disband their legions of armed men, if the government releases more than 100 members of these self defense groups who are currently in prison on charges of carrying military grade weapons. The government also said that under the agreement it will incorporate vigilante group members into the ranks of a rural police force that will be created in the following months.

Vigilante leaders have also said they will turn in heavy weaponry, such as rocket launchers and grenades to the government, if they’re allowed to keep smaller weapons like AK-47s and AR-15´s for personal defense purposes.

“Those of us who are in this, will always be vulnerable to lone hunters,” vigilante leader Manuel Mireles said on Mexico´s MVS radio on Monday.

Vigilante groups in Michoacan have been fighting the powerful Knights Templar cartel since February of last year, when groups of farmers and businessmen undertook efforts to liberate their towns from the cartel.

Vigilante group leaders say that they had to arm themselves because the Mexican government was doing little to stop the Knights Templar from imposing extortion rackets on local businesses, kidnapping people for ransom, and murdering those who didn´t pay taxes to the cartel.

The meeting held on Monday night, in a prison that is under construction in La Ruana, was attended by leaders of Michoacan´s thirty vigilante groups, who have formed a confederation known as the “General Council of Self Defense Groups and Community Police in Michoacan.”

Jose Manuel Mireles, a doctor and vigilante group leader, who is also a spokesman for the council, said that self defense groups in Michoacan will also stop patrolling towns and cities in that state if the government meets its part of the deal.

Vigilante groups have been the subject of much controversy in Mexico. Their supporters see them as a necessary response to the government's inability to control crime. But critics have warned that their leader could become warlords, who administer justice as they please, and take over resources in the areas under their control.

Since vigilante groups upscaled their operations in Michoacan in January, the Mexican government has been trying to bring these groups under its control without taking their weapons away by force.

In Monday´s agreement, the government offered to train vigilante group members and incorporate them into a rural defense force that will take orders from the Mexican army and the Federal Police.

This means that many men who are currently members of vigilante groups would continue to wield guns and participate in operations against the Knights Templar cartel, although presumably under the orders of the Mexican government.

“We will provide citizens who belong to these organized groups the option to join a new rural police force, so that they can protect their communities in a legal manner,” a press release issued by the Special Commission for Security and Development in Michoacan said.

The Mexican government had been floating similar proposals around since late January, but no deadline for the “legalization” of vigilante groups had previously been set.

Vigilante group leader Manuel Mireles, had previously said that he would not disband his forces until the Mexican government captured seven top leaders of the Knights Templar Cartel and 100 mid-level leaders. But on Monday he said that he was satisfied with the government´s proposal to liberate prisoners, and incorporate vigilante group members into its ranks.

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Does Mexico Want to 'Eliminate' Vigilante Groups?

On Monday, Mireles also accused the Mexican government of not complying with certain deals that had been made by both sides, such as liberating members of self-defense groups who were arrested last year on charges of illegally possessing military-grade weapons.