Mexico’s so-called “self-defense” groups have participated in their first major joint operation with state security forces, making numerous arrests in the Michoacan capital of Apatzingan. Some vigilantes were unarmed, others armed, and their exact mandate is still unclear.
On February 8, an unarmed contingent of vigilantes accompanied by federal security forces raided houses in Apatzingan, while a separate group of heavily armed self-defense forces guarded the outskirts of the town, reported AFP. A total of 14 alleged drug traffickers were arrested during the joint operation, among them Antonio Magaña Pantoja, the cousin of Knights Templar leader Enrique Plancarte, alias “Kike,” reported EFE.
The following day, an armed and hooded group of vigilantes paraded through the town accompanied by police and soldiers, reported AFP.
Alfredo Castillo, Michoacan’s security and development commissioner, told El Universal the operation leading to the captures was the “first real and clear manifestation” of cooperation between vigilantes and the state under the new legal framework established last month. One vigilante leader announced plans to do the same in all 113 municipalities of the state, though this has not been confirmed by officials, reported CNN.
Meanwhile, concerns remain over the Knights’ capacity to retaliate, with the group apparently threatening to detonate explosives in the town center of Apatzingan unless the offensive against them is called off, reported La Mañana.
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The operation is the first indication of what may come under the broad legal framework outlined by the government January 27. It provides for cooperation between state security forces and vigilantes, which will be incorporated into what are tentatively called “Rural Defense Units.” It also requires them to register all members and firearms.
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However, it is still unclear what the self-defense groups’ mandate is, and if the vigilantes will remain content with being subsumed into a government structure that failed them in the past and was a principal cause for their uprising.
Concerns have been raised about the paramilitary precedent in other countries in the region, and what could happen if the self-defense forces — which possess high-caliber weapons and have refused to hand in unauthorized arms — decide to expand beyond the remit afforded to them by the state.
These questions will likely become prominent, as the conflict appears set to continue for some time. Just last week, four beheadings possibly connected to the Knights Templar, provided an indication of the carnage that may come.