Vigilante groups in Mexico's Michoacan state are defying government orders to lay down their weapons, as the Mexican army makes a new push to pacify this conflict-ridden and strategic part of the country.
The vigilante groups, which recently launched a large offensive against the Knights Templar drug cartel, are urging their supporters to stop the Mexican army from entering towns that are under their control, as this tweet from a pro-vigilante group account indicates:
According to Mexico's Proceso Magazine, up to 12 people could have died on Monday night in clashes between vigilante groups and soldiers, who have been sent to Michoacan state to disarm these groups.
These clashes have angered vigilante supporters, who accused the government of siding with the Knights Templar cartel.
A MESSY WAR
Michoacan has long been a producer of methamphetamines that are exported to the United States. The state contains Mexico's second busiest port on the Pacific ocean, which makes it a convenient location for the smuggling of chemicals arriving from Asia, that are required to make drugs like crystal meth.
Michoacan's vigilante groups are not too concerned with the meth trade however. These organizations were founded early in 2013 by cattle ranchers and lime farmers, who accuse the dominant cartel in the region, the Knights Templar, of taxing local businesses and kidnapping folks for ransom.
The vigilante groups are basically trying to stop drug cartels from diversifying into other criminals activities.
And they argue that they have had to arm themselves because the Mexican government has done little to stop kidnappings and extortion in Michoacan.
In 2013 vigilante groups pushed the Knights Templar out of several towns in Michoacan, with local officials tolerating their activities, but also asking them repeatedly to give up their weapons.
At the beginning of 2014 vigilante groups made a new push to kick out the Knights Templar from Michoacan, taking over several more towns in a fertile lime growing valley known as Tierra Caliente. Their current objective is to surround Apatzingan, a town of some 200,000 residents that is considered the "headquarters" of the Knights Templar cartel.
Over the past two weeks battles between vigilante groups and cartel members have led to dozens of deaths and disrupted commerce in Michoacan, as cartel supporters staged roadblocks, aimed at keeping vigilante groups from moving their men around the state.
In some towns Vigilante groups also arrested municipal police officers, whom they accused of cooperating with cartels.
The unstable situation prompted Mexico's federal government to intervene in the state by sending troops, helicopters and special forces to Michoacan's most violent areas.
On Monday, the federal government vowed to disarm anyone who is illegally carrying weapons in Michoacan, including cartel members and supporters of vigilante groups.
But the leaders of local vigilante groups have said that they will not lay down their weapons until the government captures key members of the Knights Templar Drug cartel.
"I urge my colleagues...not to lay down their weapons until the government captures the seven main organized crime leaders who have destroyed our lives over the past 12 years," self defense group leader Manuel Mireles, said in a video published on Youtube on Tuesday. Mireles, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a plane crash last week, spoke from an undisclosed location in Mexico City.
"We are just civilians," Mireles said, "when the government assumes its responsibility, we will all return to our daily jobs."