Mexican Vigilantes Keep Arms Despite Deadline

Mexican civilians in Michoacan State have taken up arms to fight the murderous Knights Templar cartel. Saturday is the deadline for vigilantes to register their weapons with the police.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Mexican authorities have given vigilantes in the western state of Michoacán a deadline. By today, they've got to register their arms and either store them away or join an official police force.

The civilian vigilantes formed last year to defend themselves against the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel which was terrorizing residents through extortion, kidnapping and murder. Mexico's president sent in thousands of troops to try to head off a bloody confrontation between the groups, but the situation has dragged on to become one of Mexico's biggest security problems. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In the city of Apatzingan, Michoacán dozens of men file into a local park sporting sombreros and baseball caps to ward off the hot sun. This part of the state, rich in lines and avocado destined for the U.S., is known as the hot land. Temperatures now easily top 105 degrees. The men have brought their shotguns, AK-47s, AR-15s and all sorts of pistols to be registered. One man even brought in an uzi. Army soldiers fire off the weapons. They also check IDs and enter the serial numbers into a computer database.

CRISTOBAL ALVAREZ RAMIREZ: Spanish spoken.

KAHN: Christobal Alvarez Ramirez (ph) leads several of the so-called self-defense groups. He says about 500 of his men have registered their arms in times for today's deadline.

RAMIREZ: Spanish spoken.

KAHN: Alvarez says with most of his men joining the police forces, he says his group can now move about all of Michoacán legally armed. It's more comfortable that way. To root out the Knights Templar, the self-defense group started running street patrols and manning checkpoints outside dozens of towns last year. Their heavily armed presence put the cartel on the run, but it has also been a very visible sign of the government's inability to control Mexico's drug violence. Militia groups have sprouted up in dozens of other states too. Anxious to resolve the situation, the president sent in thousands of federal troops. Top cartel leaders have since been arrested or killed and several mayors and even a former governor are facing organized crime charges. But despite the successes, the vigilantes remained armed. And despite the official tough talk and today's deadline, it looks like it's going to remain that way. Army Lieutenant Colonel Victor Lamoroy Santos (ph) says nearly 6,500 weapons have been registered. But not all those gun owners joined an official police force.

LAMARROY SANTOS: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: He says given the situation here in the region, we're going to make a special dispensation and let the residents keep their weapons at home. Michoacán is now the only state in Mexico where citizens can legally own such high-powered firearms. But LaMarroy stresses, after today, vigilantes who aren't in an official police force and are caught on the streets with the weapon will be arrested. That ultimatum has many worried that a new round of violence could hit the region, just as life was beginning to show signs of normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: In downtown Apatzingan, a group of carolers strolled the streets one recent weeknight. Many residents say the self-defense groups have helped restore the peace, others say it was the federal forces. Father Javier Cortes Ochoa of Apatzingan credits the troops. He's growing more skeptical of the true intentions of the self-defense militias. Many have been infiltrated by former Knights Templar members. One of the leaders is in jail accused of killing rival vigilantes.

FATHER JAVIER CORTES OCHOA: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: Father Ochoa says he's worried that many of these self-defense members won't register their arms or join an official force. Social media has been flooded with rumors that some vigilantes have begun forming their own cartel. At a busy intersection near Apatzingan, Cuauhtemoc Espejo stands guard in front of a make shift roadblock. His face, neck and arms are covered with tattoos - some inked back when he was a teenage gang member in Los Angeles. He carries a beat up AR-15 rifle. The magazine clip is held together with a clear tape. Espejo says registered his rifle with the authorities.

CUAUHTEMOC ESPEJO: Spanish spoken.

KAHN: But he's not going to turn it in. He needs it to keep up the patrols. He says you never know when the bad guys will come back. Carrie Kahn, NPR news.

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