– military convoy arrived in the community of Cuatro Caminos on Tuesday to seize weapons, one day after the militia routed gangsters from the area
– telling civilians to lay down their arms
– Ignoring repeated government warnings that their expansion would not be tolerated, the civilian militias continued to grow and seized around 20 towns
Deadly armed clashes erupted on Tuesday when Mexican soldiers attempted to disarm civilian vigilantes who had refused to abandon an armed struggle against a drug cartel.
The Michoacan state prosecutor’s office confirmed that one person was shot dead but militias said four people died in confrontations in a western region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country.
The clashes after the federal government decided to take control of security in Michoacan State, telling civilians to lay down their arms after a nearly year-long battle with the Knights Templar cartel.
Unrest in the agricultural state has become the biggest security challenge fore President Enrique Pena Nieto’s 13-month-old administration, undermining his pledge to reduce drug violence.
Vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran told AFP a military convoy arrived in the community of Cuatro Caminos on Tuesday to seize weapons, one day after the militia routed gangsters from the area.
Residents blocked the road in protest to demand that the soldiers return the guns to the militia, he said.
Armed members of the citizens’ Self-Protection Police stand guard in Paracuaro community, Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 14, 2014
“During this struggle a soldier fired and killed two vigilantes on the spot,” Beltran said.
Two other people, including an 11-year-old girl, were also hit and died on their way to a hospital, he said, adding that he witnessed the shooting.
“We will never give up our weapons,” Beltran insisted.
Civilians first took up arms in February 2013 to oust the Templars from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to deal with the violence and extortion rackets.
Since then, officials have alleged that at least some civilian militias were backed by a cartel while analysts say the government was all too happy letting the vigilantes police the state.
The military deployment was ordered Monday after the vigilantes seized more towns in recent days and surrounded the Templar stronghold of Apatzingan, raising fears of urban battles in the main city of Tierra Caliente.
“We can’t combat illegality with illegality,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told Televisa television.
The purpose of the deployment, he said, “is simply to restore legal order in a place that did not have it.”
The attorney general’s office sent 11 helicopters as well as 70 agents and investigators to the state.
Vigilantes leaders said they would disobey the government’s order to disarm as long as authorities fail to arrest Templar capos.
Relatives mourn next to the coffin of Rodrigo Benitez –killed during clashes on the eve– during his funeral at Antunez community in Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 14, 2014
But militia leaders were divided over the government’s call to disarm.
The region’s most high-profile vigilante leader, Jose Manuel Mireles, appeared in a video late Monday saying the council of self-defense groups decided to “heed the call from the interior minister.”
“We accept to return to our communities of origin and return to our day-to-day activities,” said Mireles, who has been under police protection in a Mexico City hospital after sustaining head injuries in a plane crash.
The mixed messages from the region’s civilian militia leaders added to the complex situation in Michoacan.
Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops and federal police to the state in May, but their presence failed to discourage more towns to take up arms.
Ignoring repeated government warnings that their expansion would not be tolerated, the civilian militias continued to grow and seized around 20 towns.
The Templars have accused the vigilantes of working for the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge the civilian militias deny.
Murillo Karam said vigilantes who were detained months ago confessed to being financed by a cartel.
But analysts say the government had tacitly allowed the vigilantes to do the security work for them until now, a risky tactic that could have replicated Colombia’s experience with violent paramilitary militias.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong invited the vigilantes to join the regular police forces and warned authorities would “not tolerate” people using illegal weapons.