TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico (AP) — Mexico's government on Saturday began demobilizing a vigilante movement of assault-rifle-wielding ranchers and farmers that had succeeded in largely expelling the Knights Templar cartel from the western state of Michoacan when authorities couldn't.
At a ceremony in the town of Tepalcatepec, where the movement began in February 2013, officials handed out new pistols, rifles and uniforms to 120 self-defense group members who were sworn into a new official rural police force.
"Now we are part of the government. Now we can defend ourselves with weapons in a legal way," said the movement's spokesman, Estanislao Beltran, during the ceremony on the grounds of a local rancher's association.
The government hopes creation of the new rural force will end the Wild West chapter of the self-defense movement, in which civilians built roadblocks and battled cartel members for towns in the rich farming area called the "Tierra Caliente," or Hot Land.
The nature of the new force is still unclear. But the federal commissioner for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said Saturday it had already been in action Friday evening in a clash with false self-defense groups — even before the swearing-in ceremonies in Tepalcatepec and the town of Buenavista.
Castillo told members of the new rural force they would "have the responsibility of defending your neighbors from delinquency and organized crime."
The government had found itself in an embarrassing situation: Elected leaders and law enforcement agencies had lost control of the state to the pseudo-religious Knights Templar drug cartel. Efforts to regain control with federal police and military failed. Eventually government forces had to rely on the vigilantes because of their knowledge of where to find the cartel gunmen.
Since the commissioner was named in January, federal forces have arrested or killed three of the main leaders of the Knights Templar. The fourth, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, is in hiding and rumored to be in the rugged hills outside his hometown of Arteaga.
But the vigilante movement has been plagued by divisions, and its general council dismissed one of the founders, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, as its spokesman earlier this week because of an unauthorized video he released directed at President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Another founder, Hipolito Mora, is in jail accused of the murder of two alleged rivals. Castillo told Mexico's Radio Formula on Friday that he is also investigating claims that Mireles was involved in the killing of five vigilantes near Lazaro Cardenas on April 27.
And some of the self-defense groups plan to continue as they are, defending their territory without registering their arms. Vigilantes against the demobilization have set up roadblocks in the coastal town of Caleta and other parts of the region near the port of Lazaro Cardenas.
"We don't want them to come, we don't recognize them," vigilante Melquir Sauceda said of the government and the new rural police forces. "Here we can maintain our own security. We don't need anyone bringing it from outside."
There were indications that cartel members were trying to take advantage of that standoff.
Castillo said state and federal troops, backed for the first time by the rural force, detained 155 people "who were trying to pass as self-defense groups."
Beltran said those arrested were members of organized crime gangs.
A vigilante group member who had been manning a roadblock in the area earlier Friday told The Associated Press that his group's members retreated to their homes when the police arrived about 8 p.m. and then heard heavy shooting involving another unknown group.
The man, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisals, said his group's members were not battling the government and were hiding in their homes for protection.
Meanwhile, no one is giving up their guns, even assault weapons prohibited under Mexican law, though the ex-vigilantes are supposed to register their guns with the government.
Vigilante Irineo Mendoza, 44, drove down from his mountain hometown of Aguililla to register his gun with authorities this week. He plans to take the weapon back home with him because, he says, the Knights Templar remain hidden in the mountains.
"These are the guns we are going to fight them with," Mendoza said.
Authorities said that more than 6,000 guns in the hands of vigilante groups had been registered so far. The coordinator general of the self-defense forces, Alberto Gutierrez, said the process of disarming the not-legalized vigilante groups will begin on Sunday and the new rural police force along with federal forces will be in charge of carrying it out.
Many predict little will change after Saturday.
"This (demobilization) agreement is just something to please the government," said Rene Sanchez, 22, a vigilante from the self-defense stronghold of Buenavista. "With them or without them, we are going to keep at it."