A Quandary for Mexico as Vigilantes Rise
ANTÚNEZ, Mexico — Word spread quickly: The army was coming to disarm the vigilante fighters whom residents viewed as conquering heroes after they swept in and drove out a drug gang that had stolen property, extorted money and threatened to kill them. They even had to leave flowers and other offerings at a shrine to the gang’s messianic leader.
Farmers locked arms with vigilantes to block the dusty two-lane road leading here. The soldiers demanded to be let in; people begged them to leave. Tempers flared, and rocks were thrown. The soldiers fired into the air, and then, residents said, into a crowd. At least two people were killed on Tuesday, officials and residents said.
“He was just a farmer, and now he died for a cause,” one resident, Luis Sánchez, said of Mario Torres, 48, a lime picker who was not part of the vigilante group but was among the two buried on Wednesday as mourners cried out against the government and the soldiers.
As convoys of federal police officers and soldiers crisscrossed the rolling farmland, the turmoil here in Michoacán State — where vigilantes have taken up arms to battle cartel gunmen on village streets — has confronted the image-conscious Mexican government with a thorny security challenge and a daunting Catch-22.
A member of a so-called self-defense group on the streets of Antúnez, where a drug gang had held sway. Rodrigo Cruz-Perez for The New York Times
Should it disarm the loosely organized gunmen who have risen up to fight the drug cartels, risking deadly clashes with some of the very citizens it has been accused of failing to protect in the first place?
Or should it back down and let these nebulous outfits — with little or no police training, uncertain loyalties and possible ties to another criminal gang — continue to fight against the region’s narcotics rings, possibly leading to a bloody showdown?
Here in the town where the civilians were killed, the government seems to have chosen the second option: to back off and cool down. After Mexican officials urged the vigilantes to disarm and go home, this small farming town and at least one other that resisted the government remained under the control of gunmen — some of them teenagers — in battered pickups.
The rise of the so-called self-defense groups is perhaps the most striking example of the weakness of policing, exposing a strain of vigilantism that courses through the country, especially in rural areas where frustration and a lack of confidence in institutions is deepest.
“Michoacán, and especially its western mountainous region, has suffered persistent problems of violence and perhaps a more persistent problem with the state’s weak response to violence,” said Matthew C. Ingram, an assistant professor at the University at Albany who studies Mexico’s justice institutions. “If the state cannot or will not do it, then, in short, ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to do it.”
Or, as the Rev. Antonio Mendoza, the Roman Catholic priest who presided over the funeral of the two victims here on Wednesday, put it, “the solution is legality and rule-of-law reforms.”
“Until we have them,” he added, “people will take justice into their own hands.”
It was clear that the attempt by the government to reassert authority would come at best in fits and starts, offering little interference with the groups in some towns where they agreed to put down or at least hide their weapons, and backing off where it was not welcome. Late Wednesday, the federal government named a commissioner to direct its effort in Michoacán. In Apatzingán, a small city that the vigilantes had vowed to seize because they see it as the stronghold of the Knights Templar drug ring, federal police officers kept a heavy presence. Still, a pharmacy had been burned under suspicious circumstances, and several businesses had closed under threat by the Knights Templar, local reporters said.
Late Wednesday, the government announced the arrest of two men it called leaders of the Knights Templar, including Joaquín Negrete, who is accused of 11 murders in the region. But members of the self-defense groups told local media that the men were not top leaders and had no plans to lay down their arms.
At a meeting Wednesday night among the groups, they agreed to seek a way to work together with the federal police and little by little give up their arms, Estanislao Beltran, a spokesman for the group, told reporters afterward, according to El Universal, a newspaper.
A member of a self-defense group in Antúnez, Mexico. The town showed no signs of federal police officers or soldiers, and certainly no disarmament.Rodrigo Cruz-Perez for The New York Times
Here in Antúnez, there were no signs of federal police officers or soldiers, and certainly no disarmament. And residents would not have it any other way.
“Since they came last week, everything changed,” said a fruit vendor who, like many here, spoke in whispers and anonymously out of fear that the gang that had ruled would return. “It is peaceful.”
In nearby Parácuaro, where the burned remnants of a truck and a bus left over from a clash with the gang remained, the vigilantes kept a blockade at the town’s entrance.
According to residents, the Knights Templar moved in a couple of years ago, erecting a shrine to its mysterious leader, Nazario Moreno González. The government says that he was killed three years ago and that his followers, who revere him with something approaching religious adoration, have forced people to leave offerings to him. Yet there have been many reports across Michoacán that Mr. Moreno González is still alive. (The Knights Templar are an offshoot of his old gang, La Familia Michoacana.)
Residents told of a long ordeal of terror and helplessness. A landowner was killed when he refused to surrender property. Trucks, money and other valuables ended up with gang leaders and their allies. And death threats became commonplace. The town police, residents said, were bought off or forced to work for the gang.
“The leader of the Knights, even when he was leaving here when the self-defense police came in, said they would be back and would kill us all,” the vendor said.
The self-defense group, armed with automatic rifles and police-style pickups that it said had been seized from the gang, swept in. The group denied suggestions by some in the government that it represented another gang, the New Generation, but when questioned about how ordinary farmers could disarm vicious and hardened criminals, members declined to discuss tactics.
The local police disappeared, they said, and the gang members, outmanned, went into hiding or, perhaps, left to regroup.
The vigilantes set up a checkpoint at the entrance to Antúnez, screening visitors and receiving fruit, tacos and even small cash payments from residents, voluntarily, they insisted. They have a ragtag look to them, and some are clearly not accustomed to handling weapons. As a leader of the group spoke to a reporter, another member accidentally discharged his rifle as he got into a truck.
But it was difficult to find residents who did not appreciate them.
One of the first things the vigilantes did was destroy the image of Mr. Moreno González in the shrine’s doghouse-size chapel. Residents later replaced it with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Quandary for Mexico as Vigilantes Rise. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe