The Mexican government has given the self-defense forces in Michoacán a May 10 deadline to officially disband and register their weapons with the authorities if its members want to be incorporated into a state-run rural security body.
“The legitimacy of the self-defense forces will vanish and those who continue to say that they are vigilantes will be arrested,” said Alfredo Castillo, the central government’s special security commissioner for the state, in an interview.
There are nearly 1,200 members of the vigilante forces, which were organized at the end of February 2013 to fight the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), a drug cartel that has been terrorizing the state for years.
After violence broke out when the self-defense forces began taking over various municipalities and detaining local police officers who they claimed were in cahoots with the Templarios, President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed federal police and government troops to Michoacán.
Castillo, who was appointed the president’s top security officer for the state, negotiated an agreement in January with several leaders of the vigilantes that would eventually incorporate them into public life. According to the deal, members will have to take their weapons to the authorities for registration of their serial numbers and will then be deputized as part of a state-run rural security force.
But some law enforcement experts have questioned the viability of this new body.
“No one knows what is going to happen with this new police force,” said Alejandro Hope, a security specialist at the Mexican Institute for Competition (IMCO), a private research center. “This is the first time we have heard about them. No one has even explained how they are going to operate.”
On Monday, Castillo posted on his Twitter account that the agreement reached with the vigilante forces that occupy 20 municipalities was solid. But it wasn’t until that evening when members accepted the terms for legalization in a “democratic and unanimous vote.”
But less than 48 hours later, the leaders of the self-defense forces appeared jostled by the announcement by the government of its intentions to “disarm” the vigilantes.
“I don’t know where they got this” said Estanislao Beltrán, the spokesman for the group. “No one said anything about disarming.”
José Manuel Mireles, another leader, put his own spin on the issue by saying it wasn’t a disarmament but instead a move to allow them to “safeguard” their own weapons. “They are going to give us guarantees so that we can always carry our weapons with us,” Mireles said.
Many of the vigilantes carry automatic weapons, which is illegal under Mexican law. But to appease the self-defense forces, the government on Tuesday transferred some 20 members of the vigilante movement, who have been arrested for carrying unlicensed weapons, to a local prison in Apatzingán so that they can receive visits from family members.
But the major sore point between the government and the vigilantes has been the arrest of one of its founders, Hipólito Mora, who has been in prison since March 11 after he was charged in connection with the murders of two members of a rival self-defense group.
Mirles said that the leaders discussed his case privately with Castillo. “He will be freed shortly,” Mireles assured in a radio interview. Beltrán, the spokesperson, said that one of the issues outlined in the agreement is that “all our companions be set free.”
The self-defense forces have little more than 20 days to meet the government’s deadline. Since their formation, the vigilantes said that they would not disband until all the Templario leaders are captured and brought to justice. Since the police and military began their patrols in Michoacán state, several Templario leaders have been arrested or killed in gun battles, such as Nazario Moreno, known as El Chayo, and Enrique “Kike” Plancarte, who were both ambushed. But the cartel’s top leader, Servando Gómez, known as “La Tuta,” is still a wanted fugitive.
“He will be captured before the deadline. There are still a few more joint operations that we have to take,” Beltrán said.