Vigilantes in Michoacan

Self-defense forces in Michoacan, Mexico have signed an agreement with federal and regional authorities, a move that raises the specter of the paramilitary death squads in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru that flourished with state collaboration.

The eight-point agreement, signed by 30 vigilante leaders on January 27, stipulates that the self-defense forces will be incorporated into Rural Defense Units and will work to assist municipal security forces, reported Animal Politico. It also states that vigilantes must provide a list of their members and register all arms currently in their possession.

Additionally, it requires the Michoacan Commission for Security and Integral Development -- a body recently set up by President Enrique Peña Nieto to coordinate security efforts in the region -- to work closely with municipal governments and provide any needed assistance.

Alfredo Castillo, the federal commissioner for security and development, called the measure "a powerful step towards ensuring that security and development strategies see results," reported Milenio.

Earlier the same day, security forces arrested Dionisio Loya Plancarte, the alleged second-in-command of the Knights Templar criminal organization, in Morelia, Michoacan, reported Milenio. Plancarte has been linked with the murder of federal police officers and is thought to be responsible for drug trafficking operations in Morelia.

InSight Crime Analysis

This agreement comes after violence exploded in Michoacan during January, as federal troops moved in to disarm vigilante groups that had taken over various municipalities. At the time, self-defense leaders refused to lay down their arms. This challenge to state authority likely influenced the decision to negotiate with the vigilantes, a process that has seen authorities increase efforts to arrest the Knights Templar leadership.

While the move may receive significant public backing, it is not clear whether the self-defense forces have ulterior motives. Authorities have in the past accused members of ties to the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation, a Knights rival. The forces are powerful, with a proven capacity to overrun towns, hold soldiers hostage and acquire illegal high caliber weapons.

In this context, legalization brings to the fore a concern that has been brewing about these groups for some time: the possibility that they could convert into paramilitary forces of the kind seen historically in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Vigilantes

It is no secret that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and their predecessors enjoyed collaboration from state security forces. These forces engaged in widespread human rights abuses and massacres in the name of fighting left wing guerrillas, while simultaneously profiting from the drug trade. Civilian militias armed by the Guatemalan and Peruvian militaries to quell guerrilla uprisings also committed similar abuses, so how the legalized Michoacan vigilantes evolve will be a subject of interest.