Following the arrest of over a dozen members of a self-defense group in Michoacan, Mexico, group members temporarily took more than 40 soldiers hostage, as tensions continue to rise over the role of these community "vigilantes."
On March 11 the military reported arresting 17 group members after they set up a roadblock along a highway in Michoacan state. The men claimed to form part of the same self-defense force that saw dozens of members arrested the previous week. Authorities have accused the organization of links to the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG).
In protest of the arrests, the defense group temporarily took at least 47 members of the military hostage on March 12.
Many of the vigilantes arrested so far were reportedly carrying various high-caliber weapons, some of them meant exclusively for army use, according to regional newspaper Provincia. Family members of those arrested have said that the detainees seized the weapons from criminal organization the Knights Templar, whose stronghold lies in Michoacan. Family members have also accused the local police force of collaborating with the Knights Templar.
The authorities maintain that at least one of the detainees had "clear connections" to the CJNG, a drug trafficking organization linked to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which is battling the Knights Templar in Michoacan.
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With government authorities accusing the community self-defense group of ties to criminal organizations, and the self-defense group accusing the government of the same, it is clear that the proliferation of these vigilantes will continue to cause tensions. As is the case with most conflict zones in Mexico, it is difficult to know where the truth lies in Michoacan.
It is possible that some Mexican authorities are attempting to play up links between the self-defense groups and organized crime in order to discredit them. This comes as some authorities in the region have called for the vigilante groups to receive legal recognition. Meanwhile, allegations that local police in Michoacan are working with the Knights Templar are not far-fetched. Police and other municipal authorities face intense pressure to bow to the will of criminal cartels, to the point that the entire police force of one Michoacan town elected to resign earlier this year, due to threats.
The Knights Templar and the CJNG are active in both Michoacan and Guerrero, two states that have seen a slew of citizen self-defense groups rise up in recent years. Threats and extortion by the Knights Templar has led to mass displacement in the region, helping explain why some communities saw fit to organize their own self-defense organizations. Vigilante groups are now thought to be active in 13 of Mexico's 32 states.