Michoacan Vigilante Groups Collaborate With Mexican Government

The Mexican government has a new plan to control heavily armed vigilante groups fighting back against drug cartels. The government announced this week it is making the militias a legitimate part of the country's security forces and will allow them to help police the countryside.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an update on a story we've been following in a violent part of Mexico. We've told you drug gangs dominate the Mexican state of Michoacan. We've also said local residents have formed their own armed vigilante groups to attack the drug cartel. These independent groups threaten to overshadow the authority of the government itself, and now the government has tried a new way to deal with them.

Instead of trying to beat the militias, the government wants to co-opt them. We're going to talk about this with NPR's Carrie Kahn who has visited Michoacan. She is in Mexico City right now.

And Carrie, what's the government doing?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Well, they signed a pact with vigilante groups - that was earlier this week - where they said, this is what we're going to do, we're going to try and legalize you; that the vigilante groups now have to register their members with the federal forces. They also have to register their arms - that was a big thing. And that if they wanted to, they could join local municipal police forces. But all of this is very tentative. There's a lot of details that have not been hashed out yet, so it's early in the plan, they'll have to see how it works.

INSKEEP: Carrie, this really sounds like the kind thing that you hear about at different phases of the war in Afghanistan - or even a few years ago in Iraq, where you have local warlords - you'd probably call them - who have their own armed groups and the government tries to get them to work on the side of the government.

KAHN: Well, a lot of these towns in Michoacan have been under siege by the Knights Templar drug cartel, who not only run drugs, but also terrifying - extortion and kidnapping rings. People told me about the cartel demanding payments, setting prices for their crops, telling them who they had to sell to. And, you know, state and local police were doing nothing, and they've long been accused of collaborating with the cartels. So, the people are fed up. They took up arms to protect themselves.

You know, but I have to say that there's also accusations that some of the vigilante groups may not all be homegrown and are backed by rival cartels. The vigilante groups vehemently deny that. And they are very suspicious of the federal forces. One leader told me: Look, we're willing to give the feds the benefit of the doubt for now, but we're not going to give up our arms until we see results.

For the federal government's part, they could no longer let these armed groups run around illegally patrolling. This is their attempt to legalize the vigilantes who will be registered and supervised by federal authorities. And also, if any of the allegations are true that they have backing from rival cartels, then hopefully, they will be vetted by the federal forces.

INSKEEP: But this is a dangerous move, isn't it? Because the government is saying, we can't just let these militias run around and so their answer is to effectively let the militias run around, but say they have permission.

KAHN: Yeah. And actually this week, there's pictures in the newspaper of armed vigilante groups moving into two new towns in Michoacan. The leader that I just spoke to also told me that on Wednesday, they helped the federal police in a shootout in one of these small towns, bring six more alleged cartel members into custody. So they're still working in collaboration. The vigilantes are still armed, but it is a difficult predicament for the federal government.

The citizens really trust the vigilante groups way more than they trust the federal police or the army in these towns.

INSKEEP: Oh, so even though, as you reported in recent days, the federal police and the army were sent in, they just are not capable, or they just can't gather evidence and intelligence from the local populace.

KAHN: Michoacan is a very rural state, especially in this part where the vigilantes are working in. And so the federal government, and they've even told reporters this openly, that they do not have the intelligence to find all these cartel members. They need the local residents to help them.

INSKEEP: Is the government just wishing this problem away?

KAHN: I think that in a very cynical perspective that a lot of people have said that this is just the PRI government, the government that is in power right now and was in power for 71 years prior to their being re-elected. Now, this is just their same old politics, that they co-opt their opponents rather than actually solve problems.

I posed that to one of the leaders of the vigilante groups, and I said what do you think about this? And he said: Look, if they don't give us any results quickly, we will break the pact. That's all there is to it. So we'll have to see whether this is a sincere move on the part of the federal government and what will come of it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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