World / Latin America

Mexico converts anti-cartel vigilantes into police force

By Agencies in Tepalcatepec, Mexico (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-12 07:23

Mexico has begun handing blue police uniforms and assault rifles to vigilantes in the west of the country, legalizing a movement that formed last year to combat a vicious drug cartel.

Scores of farmers lined up Saturday at a cattle ranch to receive uniforms of the newly created rural state police force in Tepalcatepec, a founding town of the self-defense militias in the lush agricultural state of Michoacan.

The units were also making their debut in the neighboring town of Buenavista, which revolted in February 2013 against the cultlike Knights Templars gang because local police failed to protect them.

"With this, we become legal," said white-bearded vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran, nicknamed "Papa Smurf", after slipping into his blue uniform. "We are part of the government."

Some 100 new rural police officers then sang the national anthem at a formal swearing-in ceremony in the town square. The government later said 450 officers were sworn in.

"From now on, you are in charge of defending your brothers, your families, your neighbors and anybody who can be harmed by organized crime," said Alfredo Castillo, the special federal security envoy to Michoacan.

After the authorities took down three of the four main Knights Templar leaders, the vigilantes signed an agreement last month to register their guns and store them at home, or join the rural force.

The federal government, which had previously just tolerated the vigilantes, has warned that anybody found carrying weapons illegally after Saturday's deadline to join the police will be arrested.

Vigilante leaders said they still had to hash out details like salaries and who would be in command, though they would work alongside the regular state police.

The militia has faced divisions among its leadership, but more than 3,300 out of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes have signed up to join the police force, officials said.

There have been previous accusations that the vigilantes have been infiltrated by drug cartel members, and authorities have reported several cases of criminals posing as vigilantes.

Castillo said federal and state security forces, backed by the rural militia, captured 155 suspects dressed like vigilantes late Friday.

The violence in Michoacan has been one of the biggest security challenges to President Enrique Pena Nieto, who deployed thousands of troops to restore order last year and named Castillo as his special security envoy this year.


 Mexico converts anti-cartel vigilantes into police force

Police officers of Mexico's Michoacan state write down the registration numbers of the weapons to be delivered to the newly created rural police force in Tepalcatepec on Saturday. Ronaldo Schemidt / Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 05/12/2014 page10)

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