Vigilantes in assault on Nueva Italia, Michoacan

The security crisis in Michoacan has reached a pivotal moment as Mexico's military attempts to disarm the self-defense militias or vigilantes that have taken over several municipalities -- a move that, if unsuccessful, could mark the collapse of state authority in the region.

On January 13, the Michoacan state government announced it was calling in federal security forces to tackle the security crisis that has seen self-defense militias seize control of a string of municipalities in their ongoing self-proclaimed war against drug cartel the Knights Templar.

The initial incursion of the army led to clashes with the vigilante groups, according to local media. The Defense Ministry confirmed two people had died in the town of Nueva Italia, which authorities say is now under control of federal forces, along with the municipality of Paracuaro. Vigilante leaders, meanwhile, claimed at least seven had died in the community of Antunez -- among them an 11-year-old girl -- and accused the military of firing indiscriminately on civilians.

The self-defense leaders' response to the assault has been confused. The man widely recognized as the principal leader of the Michoacan self-defense groups, Jose Manuel Mireles, stated in a video sent to television channel Televisa (see below) that militias would return to their communities and participate in talks with Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo.

However, this message was immediately contradicted in a communiqué issued under the name of the Council of the United Self-Defense Forces of Michoacan, which dismissed Mireles' comments and stated: "We are not going to lay down our arms; we are at war."

The first message was also contradicted by Mireles himself in another video published on YouTube (see below). He said the militias should not hand over their arms until the seven heads of the Knights Templar were arrested and extortion, executions, kidnappings and rapes were "100 percent eliminated."

InSight Crime Analysis

The potent mix of the Knights Templar drug cartel, corrupt and inefficient security forces and state authorities, and increasingly powerful self-defense militias has been building towards the current crisis over the last year. What happens next could prove crucial in defining the security strategy of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

With the refusal to disarm, the self-defense forces have challenged the state's authority in an unprecedented way. And it will be difficult to disarm these organizations, especially while they appear to be heading up a ferocious and sustained assault against the Knights Templar. The Knights will not hesitate to retaliate with extreme violence, but the Peña Nieto administration is now in an impossible bind.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Vigilantes

If the militias continue to refuse to back down, the only way to reassert control over the region will be with force. The vigilantes are not poorly equipped rabble -- they are now armed with high caliber weapons reserved for military use and have the capacity to put up fierce resistance. Such a battle would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties, damaging what remains of the state's credibility on various political levels.

However, to leave the militias in place would essentially be an abdication of state authority, and an admission that the government is incapable of exercising power in one of Mexico's most troubled regions. What's more, some of the vigilantes have been tied to rival drug trafficking organizations who are using the self defense groups as a pretext to take more territory for themselves.