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AP News: Mexico Gov't Faces Vigilante Monster It Created

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APATZINGAN, Mexico (AP) - Vigilantes who have challenged the government's authority in lawless Michoacan state held onto their guns Wednesday as federal authorities struggled to rein in a monster they helped create: citizen militias that rose among farmers and lime pickers to fight a drug cartel.

"They said they're not going to bother us, but they don't want us to keep advancing," said Hipolito Mora, head of the self-defense group in the town of La Ruana. The vigilantes now control the 17 municipalities that make up southwestern Michoacan - about a third of the entire state. "They don't want us to carry our guns in view."

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong denied such an agreement was reached with the vigilantes.

"We made it clear that they cannot be armed," he said, though he said arresting vigilantes was not the objective.

Leaders of the self-defense groups are demanding the government arrest the top seven leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel before they consider laying down their weapons.

Late Wednesday, Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, executive secretary of the National Public Safety System, said federal police had detained two members of the Knights Templar. But the spokesman for the vigilante movement, Estanislao Beltran, said the self-defense groups were not satisfied with the arrests, saying the men weren't cartel leaders.

This week, the government has beefed up federal police numbers in the rich farming region known as the Tierra Caliente, vowing to tame the area that has been controlled for at least three years by the quasi-religious Knights Templar. But the move comes after months of unofficial tolerance of vigilante groups that have taken up arms against the cartel, which started in drug trafficking and expanded to extortion and total economic control as the government failed to act.

With more firefights and violence over the weekend as vigilantes continued to advance, the tolerance of the armed citizen groups is being called a dangerous precedent inside the country and out. The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that the warring between vigilantes and the cartel is "incredibly worrisome" and "unclear if any of those actors have the community's best interests at heart."

"What they created was a Frankenstein that got out of control," Erubiel Tirado, a specialist in civil-military relations at Iberoamerican University, said of the situation, adding that the government has been allowing citizen groups to do its "dirty work."