Officials in Mexico are seeking to disarm self-defense groups they legally recognized just months ago, amid signs they are slipping out of control. The heavily armed militias are unlikely to simply pack up and go home.
On April 4, Michoacan security commissioner, Alfredo Castillo, announced the government planned to remove weapons from the self-defense groups operating in the southwest Pacific state, and to take down barricades they had set up at the entrances to local towns. He said once the process was completed, any civilians still carrying firearms would be arrested, reported El Universal. Some vigilantes will then be incorporated into rural police units, reported CNN.
Federal forces began the disarmament process on April 5, detaining 40 vigilantes in various communities, reported La Jornada.
The move did not sit well with vigilante groups. Self-defense leader and spokesman Jose Manuel Mireles said the groups would not disarm, and vigilantes in 15 communities marched to protest the decision. They also ordered the army and navy to withdraw from “their towns,” claiming the forces were working with the Knights Templar criminal organization, reported Proceso.
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Michoacan’s vigilante groups rose to international prominence over a year ago with the stated purpose of fighting the Knights Templar criminal group. They were semi-legitimized by the Mexican government in January under a legal framework that allowed some to bear arms and carry out joint operations with security forces.
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Since then, things have not gone according to plan. The self-defense forces have failed to register the bulk of their weapons — a requirement under the agreement — while leaders have engaged in a war of words amid rumors of them having drug ties. Recently, two vigilante leaders were accused of murder, including a hit on a local mayor who opposed the groups.
In the wake of these incidents, the government has wavered in its stance on the groups. Castillo announced last week the vigilantes were no longer necessary, in an apparent precursor to the disarmament initiative.
The question remains of whether the government has the power to stop the groups they helped legitimize. The vigilantes enjoy significant local power, and insist their continued presence is necessary while members of the Knights Templar’s battered leadership remain at large.
With the groups heavily armed, well-financed and driven by questionable motives, a forced disarmament campaign may be the perfect catalyst to push them into criminal activity — a move widely predicted amid comparisons to Colombia’s paramilitaries.