Mexican civilians have taken up arms in the southwestern region of Michoacán to forcibly remove the Knights Templar drug cartel from their cities, a situation so volatile that the congressman representing Michoacan has called it a potential “civil war.”
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the vigilante “self-help” groups are armed with trucks and weapons and have begun riding from town to town. They initiated and won a fight in the small town of Nueva Italia. The fight began when “dozens of pickup trucks carrying armed vigilante members” arrived in the town and confronted the cartel. The BBC puts the number of armed vigilantes to enter Nueva Italia at “over 100,” but many of them are masked and it is difficult to identify them. One such group involved in the latest skirmish, the Tepalcatepeca Community Police, posted photos of the confrontation and announced the vigilante groups’ victories on its Facebook Page.
This is the third town the vigilantes have taken from the Knights Templar, who, according to reports, have been weakened by rivalries with other drug cartels. This region of Michoacán barely sees the presence of federal law enforcement agents, thus forcing residents to take up arms themselves if they are to keep their towns free of drug cartel influence.
Some reports say the community police groups have disarmed local law enforcement in order to carry about the removal of the cartel gangs, as they have found police protection insufficient. Meanwhile, Michoacán Governor Fausto Vallejo announced he is calling on the federal government for more aid, as his state simply does not have a large enough police force to stop either the drug cartels or the vigilante groups that have arisen out of the need for more police. As the groups amass power and claim towns in their name, few can predict what these community police groups might use it for.
Given the nature of the region, however, it is difficult to know exactly who these vigilantes are–a situation eerily similar to the armed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria two years ago, when their ties to al Qaeda and other terror groups were yet unclear. The LA Times notes that law enforcement suspects that some of these groups are actually front paramilitary groups for rival gangs, especially given their territorial nature, though they allege to fight cartels because of their rampant thievery and violence against young women especially. Vigilantes are also using makeshift explosives, damaging local businesses, and intimidating residents of other towns.
The Knights Templar cartel traffics in both synthetic and natural drugs and operates in Southern Mexico, particularly in Michoacán and neighboring states. Reports place the group in 10 of 32 Mexican states as of last summer. The cartel suffered a major blow last August as boss Abeja Linares, known as “El Guero,” was captured and arrested, shifting the balance of power within the organization.