MEXICO CITY (AP) — The leader of Mexico's best-known group of vigilantes said Thursday that his followers will set aside their masks and highway checkpoints, but they won't disappear.
Rather, Bruno Placido said his group is seeking to form a national movement with other "self-defense" groups that have sprung up throughout Mexico to fight crime fueled by drug cartels.
Placido said the vigilantes he leads in southern Guerrero state are trying to leave behind the concept of masked, armed patrols that have sparked conflict in recent weeks, after some groups were found to have possible links to drug cartels or engaged in tense confrontations with the army or rival cartels.
"We have left behind the stage of 'self-defense' and are opening a new page," Placido said. "The farmworkers who came out and joined the 'self-defense,' they can return to their work, the ranchers to their cattle."
Starting in early January, fed up with extortion and kidnapping by drug cartels and other criminals, Placido's group set up highway checkpoints where masked men armed mostly with old shotguns and hunting rifles checked passing cars. They detained more than 50 people, who they later released.
Placido said his movement's members had decided to take off their masks "to make things transparent."
"We only wore hoods because there was an environment of terror and fear," he said, referring to drug gang extortion demands against businessmen, farmers and ranchers around the town of Ayutla in Guerrero.
Now, the force is trying to come up with some sort of uniform, though it still may set up posts to check who is coming into town, he said.
Placido said his group won't give up its guns, most of which are small-caliber arms that they are permitted to own under Mexico's strict gun-control laws.
But his movement is starting to reach out to other groups that have sprung up in recent weeks.
"We are going to have a national meeting, when we get enough people on board," Placido said. "We are looking for ways to get in touch with them, to see what common ground we have."
His movement appears to have little in common with a group of masked men armed with assault rifles who set up a "community police" group in the township of Tecalcatepec in neighboring Michoacan state, who claimed they were fighting abuses by the Knights Templar drug cartel. In early March, soldiers arrested about 50 of those vigilantes, and prosecutors said some had ties to a rival drug gang, the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
Earlier this, week, angered by those arrests, dozens of townspeople set up a blockade at the entrance to a local military base in Tecalcatepec, jeering soldiers for hours in a tense confrontation. On Wednesday, banners signed by the Knights Templar cartel appeared on bridges throughout Michoacan demanding the government "put a stop to the farce of the community police," which the cartel has accused of working for the New Generation gang.
There appears to be a growing realization that the various "self-defense" groups, while they all claim to be a spontaneous response to crime, have quite different roots and should be treated differently.
Sen. Omar Fayad of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party told local media Thursday that "authorities should analyze them case by case" to sort out legitimate, traditional community policing and patrolling efforts by organized groups of residents from murky "self-defense" groups like the one in Michoacan.
There are long-tolerated community police forces in dozens of towns in indigenous areas of southern Mexico that enforce mainly local laws against disturbing the peace. But, Fayad said, "I think the Mexican government cannot allow the existence of (the new) 'self-defense' groups."
Brian Phillips, professor at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics who researches political violence in Mexico, noted that "there is a long tradition of community policing by indigenous communities and this has existed without substantial problems for quite a while. "
"But these new types of groups, these vigilante groups, seem to be a different animal," Phillips said. "It's difficult to know who they are working on but I wouldn't be surprised at all if vigilantes started working with drug trafficking organizations," either for payment or under threats. "It could be voluntary, as it would likely be lucrative, or it could be coerced to some degree."
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.