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Mexico changes tack on vigilante groups

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 9:10 AM EST, Tue January 28, 2014
An armed resident in Xaltianguis, Acapulco municipality, on April 2, 2013, in the southwestern State of Guerrero, Mexico.
An armed resident in Xaltianguis, Acapulco municipality, on April 2, 2013, in the southwestern State of Guerrero, Mexico.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mexico says vigilante groups will have a path to become institutionalized
  • It is a change from an original order for the groups to lay down their arms
  • Certain criteria must be met for fighters to join the government
  • One high-ranking cartel leader was arrested Monday

(CNN) -- In a sudden turnaround this week, the Mexican government will provide vigilante groups fighting a drug cartel in western Mexico a path to become recognized, moving away from earlier calls for the groups to disarm.

The state of Michoacan, long a flashpoint in Mexico's drug war, has of late been the scene of fighting between a cartel calling itself the Knights Templar and so-called "auto-defense" groups that have armed themselves and patrolled the streets.

The vigilante groups grew from complaints that the government was not doing enough to protect citizens from the drug cartel. The government acted this month, sending federal forces to the region and ordering the vigilante groups to lay down their weapons.

But Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appears to have abandoned that call, and instead announced a plan wherein the vigilante forces -- if they meet certain criteria -- can become part of a government-sanctioned Rural Defense Corps.

Vigilantes clash with Mexican cartels

Those members of the auto-defense forces who want to be part of the government forces will be required to pass all the tests that other Mexican law enforcement does, Peña Nieto said.

"The government is obligated to provide peace and tranquility to Michoacan, that is what the majority wants," one of the president's supporters, lawmaker Emilio Gamboa Patron, told the state-run Notimex news agency. "The grand majority does not want to live in violence."

The about-face comes as officials said they arrested a high-ranking leader of the Knights Templar.

Dionisio Loya Plancarte was arrested in Morelia, Michoacan's capital, on Monday morning by federal forces, the executive secretary of the National System of Public Security, Monte Alejandro Rubido, said.

Loya Plancarte was a major drug trafficking figure in Morelia, the official said.

He is known for distributing videos online that reported on cartel activity and threatened other criminal organizations, Rubido said.

A 16-year-old minor was apprehended along with the drug cartel figure, Rubido said.

READ: Mexican forces struggle to rein in armed vigilantes battling drug cartel

READ: Fast and Furious gun turns up after Mexican resort shootout

CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet and CNNMexico contributed to this report.

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