Militias In Mexican State Keep Up Fight Against Cartel

Mexican forces are moving into the country's western state of Michoacan. The huge federal force is trying to disarm a growing number of civilian militias, which have been fighting against a ruthless drug cartel that controls much of the state.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Mexico has been fighting a war on drug cartels for years, and it also has become a war with more than two sides. Thousands of federal police and army troops are pouring into the state of Michoacan, on the Pacific Coast. For years, that state has been home to gangs running drugs, and also forcing farmers to pay protection money just to take their crops to market. In response, people in Michoacan formed militias to fight back. And until recently, the government seemed to encourage them. Now, Mexico is trying to disarm those militias. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in the state capital, Morelia, and joined us. Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us a picture of what's going on there right now.

KAHN: It is still a very tense situation. There's a large military and federal police presence right now. The federal police continue to come into the area. The federal police came into two major towns in this western region of Michoacan and disbanded the local police. The local police have long been accused of being in collusion with the drug cartels here and the organized crime gangs. Earlier in the week, there was a clash between the federal police and these armed civilian militias. They're trying to disarm them. And there was a clash, and the federal police actually shot and killed two civilians in these towns. Yesterday, they said they arrested two cartel members, but the militias say that's not good enough.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's the thing, Carrie. For years, the government has struggled against these drug gangs. It seems - from the outside, at least - rather understandable that civilians would band together to fight them. But is that really what's happening, here? Are these desperate people, or are these vigilantes?

KAHN: Well, they are farmers. They're local residents. They say that they are sick of these criminal gangs. They've been running extortion, kidnapping rings for years. But it's been almost a year that these self-defense groups began popping up. And it's because this part of Michoacan is really rich in lime growers, avocados. It's a big export sector to the U.S. It also has a large migrant population to the United States. So, many cities in the United States know who the Michoacanos are, the people from here. But there's also concerns that maybe they are backed by rival gangs.

You know, you see these guys, and some of them are armed with nothing more with machetes and hunting rifles. But then you see other groups that have large assault weapons, matching shirts, nice cars that they're - trucks that they're driving in coordination. So there is question about where they're getting their money. And it's the drug cartel that is here - it's called the Knights Templar - they dominate the meth traffic here in Michoacan, which now has one of the highest murder rates in the country, about 100 a month. And this is in a state of about four million residents.

MONTAGNE: But why did the government move in now, when it seemed for months and months and months to approve of these self-defense militias?

KAHN: That's a really good question, and it's a hard one to understand now. But it seems like the militias were growing, and they were also spreading. And they were surrounding one of the Knights Templar strongholds, which was a large town called Apatzingan, which has about 100,000 residents. And it looked like maybe they were poised for a major battle there. And, Renee, this coincided with a plane crash by one of the leaders of the militias. He was involved in a plane crash - survived. But then the federal police took him to Mexico City to a private hospital, and was there protecting him. And it sort of brought to light the federal government's approval of them. And it sort of came to a head all at the same time.

MONTAGNE: And so, where to from here?

KAHN: It's really difficult to say. It's been, as you said, a troubled area for many years. President Calderon started his war against drug traffickers here in December of 2006. The feds can't leave, but they really can't stay forever, too. So it's a difficult situation here in Michoacan.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn, speaking to us from the state of Michoacan, in Mexico. Thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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