Since the turn of the century, the power of the Mexican drug cartels has increased tremendously. The problem was largely ignored until 2006 when President Felipe Calderón began using military force to go after the cartels.
However, despite high profile arrests of various cartel figureheads, the cartels still remain powerful. The increased military pressure on cartels and the violent power struggles between cartels has led to 70,000 deaths in the past 6 years, and while the government has been able to restore order in some regions, there are still many areas where criminals operate freely, and the local populations live in constant fear of violence.
The western state of Michoacan has been under the control of cartels for some time, and the Knights Templar rose to power in 2011. With local police doing nothing to stop the cartel, and many officials on their payroll, locals were forced to pay extortion money to the Knights Templar. Feeling increasingly fed up with waiting for the government to help them, some locals took matters into their own hands.
Vigilante “self-defence” groups launched an offensive against the cartel in early January 2014, and on 13 January they succeeded in ousting the cartel from the town of Nueva Italia.
This followed earlier success in the towns of Paracuaro and Antunez, and they looked to build on this as they marched towards the Knights Templar stronghold of Apatzingan in an effort to eliminate the cartel entirely. Following the initial offensive, the government deployed hundreds of troops in the area on 14 January in order to restore order. The security operation was joined by a call for all vigilantes to lay down their arms, with renewed promises that the federal government would work to topple the Knights Templar.
However, with the state being seen as a failure after so many years under cartel oppression, many vigilantes were reluctant to lay down their arms, fearing this would leave them defenceless against the Knights Templar, and instead continued their offensive against the cartel.
This led to clashes between vigilantes and the government troops trying to disarm them.
Tension between the vigilantes and the government continued, until an agreement was reached on 28 January to integrate the “self-defence” groups into the official security forces. Under the agreement, the vigilantes will operate under the control of federal authorities as a Rural Defence Corps, giving them a temporary legal status.
The government and its citizens will certainly hope the newly integrated vigilante groups will be able to work with security forces to build on recent successes, and ultimately restore order to Michoacan.