MEXICO CITY (AP) — Members of a masked vigilante group in southern Mexico demanded Monday that the government free 44 colleagues arrested last week on weapons and organized crime charges, after the government accused them of using their weapons to settle internal disputes with other townspeople.
The "self-defense" group from the town of Aquila, in western Michoacan state, claim they had to take up arms to defend against the Knights Templar drug cartel. The vigilantes said at a news conference in Mexico City that the cartel demanded to be given 700,000 pesos ($54,000) that townspeople earned from mining royalties.
"My clients did not form a group for criminal purposes," lawyer Leonel Rivera said. "They were performing duties that the Mexican government has not been able to perform in many parts of the country, where authorities have not been able to guarantee the safety of the citizens of this country."
Jesus Reyna, Michoacan's acting governor, said last week the vigilantes were actually engaged in an internal dispute with other townspeople over the royalties from a local iron ore mine. He suggested the armed group had been motivated by economic interests, not public safety.
Local media reported the arrested vigilantes face organized crime and weapons possession charges.
Aquila is one of several towns in Michoacan where people have formed self-defense squads in recent months.
In the neighboring state of Guerrero, where self-defense groups have also sprung up this year, residents of the town of Xaltianguis swore in dozens of local women as members of the local "community police" squad. The women were given T-shirts and hunting rifles.
People in Xaltianguis have blocked highways and briefly prevented the passage of Mexican soldiers in recent weeks as a way to demand respect for their movement.
The federal government has tolerated some self-defense squads, but authorities have arrested others found carrying heavy-caliber weapons that most Mexicans are prohibited from having.