Mexico essentially legalized the country's growing "self-defense" groups Monday, while also announcing that security forces had captured one of the four top leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel, which the vigilante groups have been fighting for the last year.
The government said it had reached an agreement with vigilante leaders to incorporate the armed civilian groups into old and largely forgotten quasi-military units called the Rural Defense Corps. Vigilante groups estimate their numbers at 20,000 men under arms.
The twin announcements may help the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto find a way out of an embarrassing situation in the western state of Michoacan, where vigilantes began rising up last February against the Knights Templar reign of terror and extortion after police and troops failed to stop the abuses.
"The self-defense forces will become institutionalized, when they are integrated into the Rural Defense Corps," the Interior Department said in a statement. Police and soldiers already largely tolerate, and in some cases even work with, the vigilantes, many of whom are armed with assault rifles that civilians are not allowed to carry.
Vigilante leaders will have to submit a list of their members to the Defense Department, and the army will apparently oversee the groups, which the government said "will be temporary." They will be allowed to keep their weapons as long as they register them with the army.
The military will give the groups "all the means necessary for communications, operations and movement," according to the agreement.
The vigilante leaders, who include farmers, ranchers and some professionals, gathered Monday to discuss the agreement, but it was not yet clear for them what it would imply. It wasn't known if the army would offer anyone salaries.
Misael Gonzalez, a leader of the self-defense force in the town of Coalcoman, said leaders had accepted the government proposal. But the nuts-and-bolts "are still not well defined," he added. "We won't start working on the mechanisms until tomorrow."
Men belonging to the Self-Defense Council of Michacan, (CAM), ride on a sandbag filled truck while t …
Vigilante leader Hipolito Mora said in a television interview that the agreement also allows those who qualify to join local police forces. "The majority of us want to get into the police ... I never imagined myself dressed as a policeman, but the situation is driving me to put on a uniform."
Latin America has been bruised by experiences with quasi-military forces, with such tolerated or legally recognized groups being blamed for rights abuses in Guatemala and Colombia in the past.
While the cartel may be on its way out, "there shouldn't be abuses by those who come after, there shouldn't be what we would call a witch hunt; there should be reconciliation," said the Rev. Javier Cortes, part of a team of priests in the Roman Catholic diocese of Apatzingan who have publicly denounced abuses by the Knights Templar.
Before dawn on Monday, soldiers and police arrested one of the cartel's top leaders, Dionicio Loya Plancarte, alias "El Tio," or The Uncle. (The Interior Department spells his first name with an "s," but the Attorney General's Office and U.S. authorities spell it with a "c.")