Mexico’s new rural police: Same old problems?

APATZINGAN, Mexico (AP) – A new police force made up of former vigilantes fighting a drug cartel in violence-plagued western Mexico already faces some of the same problems as the disbanded local law enforcement agencies it is replacing.

The federal government acknowledges that the new rural police force in Michoacan state is being given uniforms and powerful weapons with minimal background checks and virtually no training.  The government also says that it’s relying on recommendations from former commanders of the “self-defense” groups on whom to deputize, the same people who rose up to fight the Knights Templar cartel when local and state authorities wouldn’t.

Local police in Mexico traditionally have been poorly paid and trained, making them vulnerable to corruption. In Michoacan, the police were considered the cartel’s foot soldiers, and when the vigilantes rose up they ran many allegedly corrupt police out of the area.

Analysts fear that without proper vetting the new police force will soon be corrupted and splinter into criminal bands, with violence returning to the region known as Tierra Caliente, or the “Hot Land.”

“It’s something of a lost opportunity,” said security analyst Alejandro Hope. He said without oversight the rural police force “will disintegrate little by little, and some groups will turn into plunderers and criminals.”

The government’s stated intention was to bring peace to a region where vigilantes had created a kind of Wild West with assault-gun wielding civilians building roadblocks and fighting the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel for control of the rich agricultural region.

In January, the federal government seized control of the state and made a pact with the self-defense groups to register their arms. Those that wanted to were allowed to join the new police force starting May 10.

The commissioner now running Michoacan for the federal government agrees that the risks are high if authorities don’t get the transition right.

“We can’t permit history to repeat itself,” Alfredo Castillo told the first recruits declared rural police this month. “You now represent the state, so we’re depending on you so that in 15 months the same thing doesn’t happen all over again.”

Thousands of farmers and ranchers formed the vigilante groups in February 2013 to take back territory from the Knights Templar, which in recent years has morphed into a mafia earning more from extortion and stealing iron ore than from running drugs.

The self-defense groups largely succeeded in expelling the cartel from Michoacan when authorities couldn’t, but there were fears that the Knights Templar and other drug gangs had managed to infiltrate them.

The self-defense members, identified by their white T-shirts, have registered more than 6,000 weapons. But they’ve been allowed to keep them, even the large-caliber rifles that under Mexican law can only be used by the military.

And although they’ve been ordered to demobilize, some self-defense groups say they’ll continue defending their territory without registering their weapons.

Residents in some areas report vigilante groups engaging in cartel tactics like extortion.

“A self-defense group came to our community from outside and asked that we pay them for security,” said Octavio Villanueva, a local leader in Aquila, a town at the center of the vigilante-cartel conflict. “Before it was the Knights Templar who were asking for 700,000 pesos ($56,000) a month, and now it’s the vigilantes.”

Others say the payments sought by self-defense groups are voluntary.

“The self-defense groups also have to live off of something. They quit working and have lost a lot of money,” said Irineo Mendoza, a former mayor of the town of Aguililla.

Castillo, the government commissioner, continues to recruit rural police forces in the Tierra Caliente region where the vigilantes first rose.

Federal police are helping with on-the-job training for the 450 new police signed up so far. The force will grow to 1,100 in the next two months and report to Michoacan’s state department of public safety, whose police officers have been suspected of being lookouts for the Knights Templar.

The rural police will be paid from 8,000 to 9,000 pesos per month, or from about $620 to nearly $700.

Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer says replacing armed group with another one smacks of the long-held government strategy of co-option, especially under President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years.

“I think we have the right to suspect that in this rarefied soup that is Michoacan exists a very old practice of divide, co-opt and control more than resolve anything,” he told MVS radio.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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