Here is an excerpt from this Associated Press article in The Guardian:
"Hundreds of vigilantes in Mexico were involved in a gun battle with a drug cartel over the weekend in a fight to control territory. Members of so-called self-defence groups entered Nueva Italia in Michoacán state in an effort to liberate towns from the control of the Knights Templar cartel. Opponents and critics say the vigilantes are backed by a rival cartel, something the groups deny. Hundreds of vigilantes drove into Nueva Italia late on Sunday morning in a caravan of large trucks, surrounded the city hall and disarmed local police... An Associated Press journalist witnessed citizens initially welcoming them. But shooting broke out almost immediately in and around the centre square... Fighting between vigilantes and alleged cartel members has racked Michoacán for almost a year. President Enrique Peña Nieto's government has sent thousands of federal police officers and soldiers to the state, but the situation has worsened... The federal government has said the civilian vigilante groups are operating outside the law, armed with high-calibre weapons Mexico allows only for military use. ut government forces have not moved against them and in some cases seem to be working in concert with the vigilantes." Link to Full Article
Analysis: The expansion of the vigilante movement has been going on for several years, and I can recall an incident in a very rural town going back to 2009. In that case, a local girl had been kidnapped, and the townspeople--after apprehending the kidnappers--tied the five men to trees and beat them senseless. They even managed to stave off police from entering the town. On the flip side of that, after an enforcer group for the Sinaloa Federation dumped 35 bodies in Veracruz and claiming the dead were members of Los Zetas, they called themselves the "Mata Zetas" and said their mission was to rid Mexico of the bloodthirsty killers. It was all a sham, and other groups with that name have emerged before under less than honorable circumstances.
But the violence often associated with vigilantism in Mexico has never been more extreme than what has been observed in the state of Michoacán in the last year, and particularly in the last few weeks. It led the Mexican government to send in the military to secure the major port of Lázaro Cárdenas and stand down the entire local police force. Rumors and accusations are swirling that the Knights Templar and/or rival cartels like the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) have infiltrated the vigilantes--or militias, as some media outlets are calling them--and that local police and governments are supporting militia activity.
It's interesting to note that, while there are many differences, there are also some similarities between these vigilante groups and the autodefensas that were active in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. Known as the AUC, they started out as private armies working for drug lords to protect their territories and operations from terrorist groups like the FARC and ELN. They went into areas where the FARC operated and uprooted the communities that they thought provided logistical, personnel, and moral support to the guerrillas. Some estimates claim as many as 2.5 million people in Colombia were displaced by the AUC, which eventually became engaged in the drug trade as well. The autodefensas in Mexico are different in the sense that they're generally made up of non-criminal local citizens who are tired of the cartel violence and feel they need to do the job the government can't or won't do.
However, the similarty lies in the fact that sizeable factions of the government, military, and police inevitably end up supporting vigilante activity. They are all fighting against the same enemy, and for every vigilante holding a gun and placing himself in harm's way, that's one less police officer or soldier that needs to risk that confrontation. The rule of law that Mexico is working so hard to reinstate is obviously being snubbed, but that may be okay in the eyes of people who feel that any cartel or militia members who get arrested are never going to see the inside of a courtroom anyway. Government officials probably think it's sufficient to speak out vocally against vigilante groups that operate outside the law, but then in practice, be content to look the other way and allow those groups to do the dirty work.
The main problem with this attitude is that the Mexican government can't rely on these often untrained and disorganized groups to contain the violence. It's not just the Knights Templar operating in Michoacán; you have the remnants of La Familia Michoacana, as well as elements of the CJNG. When you mix three cartels, plus government/police forces, plus militia groups, violence is going to get out of control and people are going to lose track of who's killing whom. That poses a big public relations problem for President Enrique Peña Nieto; not only does he have to somehow quell violence being initiated by at least three or four different groups, but he has to find a way to convince local officials that the rule of law needs to stand. That would involve arresting militia leaders and members--an option that would likely be highly unpopular.
I'm curious to see what tack EPN will take to try to deal with the security situation in Michoacán. But even if he manages to quell the violence there, odds are the militia movement will emerge elsewhere, and possibly on a larger scale if similar groups see the Michoacán groups achieve any level of success. Ultimately, the entire situation demonstrates that the Mexican government has lost control of parts of Mexico to TCOs, and the strategies they have developed and are following continue to fail in the face of unending corruption.