MEXICO CITY (AP) — A group of farmers and businessmen from the western Mexico state of Michoacan demanded Wednesday that the government stop sending thousands of federal police to fight a local drug cartel.
While the group denied any links to the Knights Templar cartel, its news conference in Mexico City coincided with a rare public relations push by the gang, whose leader raged against federal police in a videotaped statement posted over the weekend on social media sites.
Both the cartel and the group, which calls itself Peace with Dignity for Michoacan, also railed against "self-defense" groups set up by residents in several Michoacan towns to resist Knights Templar gunmen.
The self-defense groups say the cartel's gunmen subjected residents to systematic extortion demands for "protection payments."
But the Peace with Dignity group said such payments were levied only on part of the population, such as big avocado plantations, and were helpful in some cases, or at least a necessary evil.
"We avocado farmers were getting robbed a lot" by thieves sneaking into orchards, farmer Nicolas Aguilar said. "We were told there was a payment being collected to help with security, and since then we haven't had any more problems with theft."
The group also cited a list of alleged abuses by federal police, who they said were bothering local women and scaring away tourism, one of the main sources of revenue for the hilly, pine-clad state.
"We don't want any more federal police," said a Purepecha Indian community leader, Miguel Aguilera.
That coincides with the message from Knights Templar leader Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, who admitted to being a criminal but said his gang is defending Michoacan against rival drug gangs who he said were worse thieves.
Gomez also alleged abuses and corruption by the thousands of federal officers sent by President Enrique Pena Nieto to Michoacan in May after violence between the cartel and the self-defense groups escalated.
"They scare off tourism, they scare off investment. They come to steal," Gomez said of the federal police.
He further accused federal police of protecting and fomenting the self-defense groups, which he claimed are pawns of the rival Jalisco cartel.
On Wednesday, police and soldiers arrested several members of the self-defense force in Aquila. Authorities have shown tolerance for the forces when they are lightly armed and cooperative, but have arrested dozens of community police for carrying heavier weapons, like assault rifles.
Federal security officials did not respond to requests for comment on whether the video was authentic, or the allegations against the federal police.
It is rare for leaders of Mexico's drug cartels to speak publicly, but Gomez has posted videos of lengthy speeches at least twice in the past.
Some cartels have been known to sponsor front groups or demonstrations against police in Mexico.
Misael Gonzalez, a leader of the self-defense force in the Michoacan town of Coalcoman, said he didn't know if Peace with Dignity is linked to the Knights Templar, but said that "in several towns, there have been 'narco marches' organized by the Knights Templar" to demand the withdrawal of federal police.
Gonzalez said he is happy to have federal officers in his town, a view shared by Hipolito Mora, leader of self-defense force in the town of La Ruana.
"We need the federal police and the army here," Mora said. "If they leave, the killing will start again."