Mexican army in deadly clash with vigilantes

A member of the Mexican army patrolling the streets surrounding the cathedral in Morelia, Mexico during a ceremony in which Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong signed an agreement to stop violence in the state on Jan 13, 2014. But de
A member of the Mexican army patrolling the streets surrounding the cathedral in Morelia, Mexico during a ceremony in which Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong signed an agreement to stop violence in the state on Jan 13, 2014. But deadly clashes erupted on Tuesday when Mexican soldiers attempted to disarm civilian vigilantes who refuse to abandon an armed struggle against a drug cartel. -- PHOTO: AFP

CUATRO CAMINOS, Mexico, (AFP) - Deadly clashes erupted on Tuesday, Jan 14, 2014, when Mexican soldiers attempted to disarm civilian vigilantes who refuse to abandon an armed struggle against a drug cartel.

The Michoacan state prosecutor's office confirmed that one person was shot dead but militias said four people died in the confrontation in a western region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country.

The violence came after the federal government decided to take control of security in Michoacan state, telling civilians to lay down their arms or apply for police jobs after a nearly year-long battle with the Knights Templar cartel.

Unrest in the largely rural state has become the biggest security challenge for President Enrique Pena Nieto's 13-month-old administration, undermining his pledge to reduce drug violence.

Vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran told Agence France-Presse a military convoy arrived in the community of Cuatro Caminos on Tuesday to seize weapons, one day after the militia routed gangsters from the area.

"We will never give up our weapons," Mr Beltran said.

Residents blocked the road in protest to demand that the soldiers return the guns to the militia, he said.

Mr Beltran said the dead included one vigilante and an 11-year-old girl. He earlier said that two of them were militiamen.

Ms Juana Perez was in tears in front of her son's coffin hours after she said a "stray bullet" killed 25-year-old Rodrigo Benitez, who was unarmed when he went out to show support to the vigilantes.

"We had gathered just to ask for peace and security. The army has to be careful," she told AFP.

The National Human Rights Commission said it would investigate the four deaths.

In the town of Buenavista, around 100 militiamen blocked some 50 soldiers for about four hours before letting them leave on condition they stay away for at least three days.

Civilians first took up arms in February 2013 to oust the Templars from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to deal with the violence and extortion rackets.

Since then, officials have alleged that at least some civilian militias were backed by a cartel, with critics noting that they used unlawful assault rifles that gangs usually own.

Analysts, however, say the government has been happy to allow the vigilantes to police the state until now, a risky tactic that could have replicated Colombia's experience with ultra-violent paramilitary militias.

The military deployment was ordered Monday after the vigilantes seized more towns in recent days and surrounded the Templar stronghold of Apatzingan, raising fears of urban warfare in the main city of Tierra Caliente.

"We can't combat illegality with illegality," Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told Televisa television.

The purpose of the deployment, he said, "is simply to restore legal order in a place that did not have it."

Vigilante leaders said they would disobey the government's order to disarm as long as the authorities fail to arrest Templar capos.

The movement's most prominent leader Jose Manuel Mireles had appeared in a video on late Monday saying he supported the disarmament.

But Mr Mireles, who is recuperating from head injuries sustained in a plane crash, emerged in a second video telling his comrades to "not abandon their weapons" until the authorities detain seven cartel leaders.

The mixed messages added to the complex situation in Michoacan.

Mr Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops and federal police to the state in May, but their presence failed to discourage more towns to take up arms.

Ignoring repeated government warnings that their expansion would not be tolerated, the civilian militias continued to grow and seized around 20 towns.

The Templars have accused the vigilantes of working for the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge the civilian militias deny.

Mr Murillo Karam said vigilantes who were detained months ago confessed to being financed by a cartel.