MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — Mexican authorities said Tuesday that they have arrested 46 people who worked for criminal gangs but posed as members of vigilante "self-defense" groups.
The vigilante movement sprang up last year in the western state of Michoacan to fight the Knights Templar drug cartel. The heavily armed vigilantes wear white T-shirts with slogans demanding freedom for their home towns, or the slogan "Self Defense Group."
The federal envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said the arrested gang members were wearing similar, but fake, T-shirts. They were arrested Monday in the town of Huetamo, near the neighboring state of Guerrero, after they opened fire on federal forces.
The suspects were found with 23 guns, three grenades and a grenade launcher. Castillo did not specify which gang the suspects belonged to, but vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran said they belonged to the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.
There have been reports that drug gangs from Guerrero are seeking to expand their territory into Michoacan. Authorities arrested five other people last week who are suspected of having passed themselves off as vigilantes in another Michoacan town.
Castillo also said that on Tuesday, federal forces had entered the town of Arteaga, considered the stronghold of the last remaining top leader of the Knights Templar cartel, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez. Authorities have killed or arrested most of the cartel's other leaders.
Beltran said that more than 150 pickup trucks carrying self-defense members, state and federal police entered Arteaga and three nearby towns and that they plan to stay in the mountainous area until Gomez is detained.
"We have always stayed in the towns until we have cleaned them out of members of organized crime and when people can live in peace. We will do the same in Arteaga," Beltran said.
The government is trying to register and reign in the vigilantes, to avoid copy cats and infiltrators, and has given the vigilantes until May 10 to demobilize, which is usually understood as handing in their largest-caliber weapons and ending armed patrols. Instead, the government has offered them the option of signing as members of army-controlled Rural Defense corps.