MEXICO CITY — The scenes are incongruous. Inside the heavily guarded colonial state government building in Michoacán on Monday, a solemn lineup of officials vowed that the federal government would restore authority to a region that has descended into lawlessness.
But a couple hundred miles away, in Michoacán’s agricultural lowlands, pickup trucks filled with armed men calling themselves self-defense forces have been careening down country roads for the past week, advancing on towns encircling the region’s main city, Apatzingán. They have promised to seize the city, the stronghold of the Knights Templar, the state’s powerful drug gang.
Security analysts have said, however, that these self-defense forces themselves are murky and may even include members of other gangs.
The turmoil in Michoacán — where vigilantes have been battling cartel gunmen on village streets — poses one of the biggest security challenges for President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose focus since taking office a little over a year ago has been on the economy. He concluded his first year in office last month by successfully pushing broad economic changes through Congress.
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In Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, the Mexican interior minister, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said Monday that the federal government would take charge of security in the “Tierra Caliente,” the region around Apatzingán.
“Rest assured that we will contain the violence in Michoacán,” he said, flanked by the secretary of defense and the governor, who had conceded that the state and local police could not re-establish order.
Over the last several days, the government has been sending more and more federal troops and police into the state, in the western part of the country.
But Hipólito Mora, one of the leaders of the self-defense groups, told the local news media that first the government must arrest the leaders of the Knights Templar.
A year ago, Peña Nieto planned to steer public attention away from the campaign against the narcotics rings, which had consumed his predecessor, President Felipe Calderón. Beyond a promise to place more attention on social issues and work toward withdrawing the military from the drug war, Peña Nieto barely mentioned the issue.
Yet in Michoacán, the state where Calderón first escalated Mexico’s drug war seven years ago, vigilantes began organizing to confront the cartels.
Parts of the state — which have a long history of rebellion against central authority — seem to be in the control of a combustible mix of armed groups, and it is unclear where they come from and where their loyalties lie.
Peña Nieto first sent troops to Michoacán last May to battle drug violence and in November the Navy took over operations at the Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas, where the Knights Templar had established control.
“Tierra Caliente has become a no man’s land full of personal vendettas, serial kidnappings, forced disappearances, and murders that come and go unnoticed, every day,” Barragán said.
Peña Nieto’s “promises not to militarize have fallen by the wayside,” said Bruce M. Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami’s department of international studies. “This requires troops, firepower, resources and sustained attention despite what Peña Nieto says about not wanting to militarize any further.”
Bagley said the vigilante groups had emerged to fill the “vacuum or void in which citizen security is so precarious” that any armed group can step in.
And he said there were “rumors swirling” that the vigilantes were connected to the Sinaloa Cartel.
“It is my firm suspicion that there is a struggle over turf, territory, and trafficking,” he added. “I don’t think we could explain how they could obtain their level of firepower so quickly.”