TANCITARO, Mexico (AP) — Armed vigilantes who have taken control of territory in lawless Michoacan could turn into the very sort of organized crime forces they're fighting, a Mexican official assigned to clean up the violence-wracked state said Thursday.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's new envoy to coordinate security and development in the state, said the Knights Templar cartel that the vigilantes are battling formed under a different name about 10 years ago with the same mission: to fight an incursion by the Zetas cartel.
"You can start with a genuine cause, but when you start taking control, making decisions and feeling authority ... you run the risk of getting to that point," Castillo told MVS radio.
Estanislao Beltran, spokesman for the self-defense groups, said the mission is to kick out the cartel, not become one.
To make the point, about 200 vigilante supporters gathered in Tancitaro's town square Thursday for a symbolic return of 25 avocado orchards that had been seized by the cartel, which started in drug trafficking and expanded into extortion and total economic control of the areas it dominated.
Such events are bolstering the strength and popularity of the vigilantes even as the government demands they disarm.
"Thanks to the self-defense groups, we can work our orchards," said Agustin Arteaga, who had been kept off his land for several years since nearly a dozen trucks pulled up and men tied and beat him before taking his orchard.
The appointment of Castillo, one of President Enrique Pena Nieto's closest allies, is seen as an admission that Michoacan Gov. Fausto Vallejo has lost control of the state.
Castillo was named by Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong to coordinate efforts to restore peace and development in the farming-rich state, which is a major producer of limes, avocados and mangos. There are no specifics on how he will do that.
"There has been a profound split between the state and society, between the institutions and society," Castillo said.
Government officials are starting to echo what critics are saying about the vigilantes, who had been taking territory from the cartel with the tacit approval and even security cover of the federal government, though Osorio Chong has denied that.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that the warring between vigilantes and the cartel is "incredibly worrisome" and that it is "unclear if any of those actors have the community's best interests at heart."
But people who had been kidnapped, beaten and had land confiscated by the Knight Templar praised the vigilantes for providing the security for them to return.
Leovigildo Sanchez, who attended the land handover ceremony, said the cartel killed his father and brother and took two orchards. He began working the land again after vigilantes arrived in Tancitaro in November.
"I thank God and the self-defense groups. We are here with them," he said.
The cartel's incursions had caused an exodus of many residents of the Tierra Caliente region, including a flood of people seeking asylum in San Diego, California.
The self-defense groups are encouraging everyone, from poor lime pickers to rich businessmen, to return and help keep their movement financially afloat.
"There are a lot of businessmen financing this movement," said The Rev. Gregorio Lopez, a Roman Catholic priest in the farming region's main city, Apatzingan, which is still under cartel rule.
Hipolito Mora, one of the self-defense movement founders, said he has already called one well-heeled family that fled to Guadalajara to tell them they can return and claim their sprawling ranch.
"The rich have lost their fear, and they are approaching us, they are joining the movement," Mora said.
The Knights Templar also forced owners to take out mortgages or sign over their land to pay extortion demands.
Manuel Lucatero is still fighting to get back the 64 acres that the La Familia cartel, the precursor to the Knights Templar, took in 2008, along with 10 million pesos. He's waging a legal battle because the cartel drew up false ownership papers for the land.
"We're fighting so that everyone can return, and we can live in peace," he said.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.