Mexican vigilantes stand up to drug cartel

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APATZINGAN, Mexico -- The scent of limes in the air, Papa Pitufo shouted orders to his men and consulted by cell phone with his far-flung forces.

The gray-bearded farmer has emerged as the senior leader of the vigilante movement that has taken over a large swath of wealthy Michoacan state, one of the world's top producers of avocados and limes but dominated for nearly a decade by ruthless drug cartels.

For the first time in modern Mexican history, an armed civilian band has ejected a drug cartel from its environs. For now, members of the so-called Knights Templar are lying low, challenged by rebelling citizens -- including some who have returned to their families' homes from California -- finally fed up with unrelenting extortion, kidnapping, arson, rapes and killings.

"Where we have a presence, [the Knights Templar] no longer have influence. They are gone," Papa Pitufo said at the main lime market in Apatzingan.

But the vigilantes have also proved a major challenge to the young government of President Enrique Pena Nieto -- making clear that official security forces had been unable to protect their own people. Initially, federal forces tried to cooperate with the vigilantes. Now, fearing a Frankenstein-like scenario, authorities are trying to rein them in.

Saturday was the federally imposed deadline in Michoacan for thousands of "self-defense" forces, as they call themselves, to register their weapons and formally disband. They are being allowed to keep their handguns and assault weapons (but no rocket launchers or bazookas) and will be invited to join a new rural police force.

As of the weekend, at least 3,316 people had signed up, and more than 6,000 weapons were registered. That, too, is unprecedented; no other Mexican state allows ordinary citizens to legally retain AK-47s and other military-style assault weapons.

Papa Pitufo -- his real name is Estanislao Beltran, and his nom de guerre translates as Papa Smurf -- said he expected that all of his people would comply with the registration requirement.

"When we started this fight, there were daily battles, barricades everywhere. This was a place of great sadness. We had to act," said Mr. Beltran, 57, who looks a bit like a skinny Santa Claus. An armed Santa, however: A sparkling, silver-plated .38-caliber pistol was on his hip, and bodyguards in white T-shirts and bearing rifles surrounded him.

By no means has the violence completely subsided. Broad-daylight shootouts and instances of bodies dumped on roadsides have diminished, but few are fully confident that the Knights won't return and unleash a brutal wave of revenge killings.

Perhaps predictably, some vigilante groups have been infiltrated by criminals or have been corrupted and are out of control. More than 100 people have been arrested for posing as vigilantes and carrying out the same crimes the Knights Templar committed, including extortion and kidnapping, the government says.

"The original motive for some has been lost," said a senior Mexican military official, who asked not to be identified to speak frankly. "They learned what power is and liked it."

Esperanza Bejar last week was burying her 26-year-old son, Roberto. He was kidnapped and beaten up by police over a business deal, she said, and then kidnapped and beaten by some of the more violent vigilantes. The pressure was too much, and he killed himself, she said.

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