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June 29, 2017

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Vigilantes reclaim another town in western Mexico

LA HUERTA, Mexico -- Self-defense groups made up of Mexican farmers and other local people have taken over another town that had been overrun by drug traffickers in the restive state of Michoacan.

About 80 men armed with high-powered rifles Friday moved into the village of Huerta, population of about 500, in a convoy of trucks, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

They were followed by a contingent of federal police who did not try to stop them, despite government efforts in recent days to get civilian vigilante groups in the region to stand down.

The vigilantes also captured two suspected cartel members and confiscated weapons, jackets, radios and other goods and equipment.

Federal forces in recent days have moved into Michoacan, in western Mexico, and tried to disarm the local vigilante groups and flush out the Knights Templar drug trafficking gang, which has seized control of large swathes of Michoacan.

The militias so far have stood their ground, saying they want to see drug kingpins arrested before they back down.

Civilians first took up arms in February 2013 to oust the Knights Templar from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to stop the group's violence, kidnapping and extortion rackets.

Officials have alleged that at least some of the civilian vigilante groups are backed by rival cartels, with critics noting that they used unlawful assault rifles that gangs usually own.

The issue is even on the radar of Washington, where Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday expressed concern, and said the U.S. government is prepared to offer assistance if needed.

"We're concerned," Kerry told reporters shortly before meeting with his Mexican counterpart Jose Antonio Meade in the U.S. capital.

"Afraid, no. Concerned, yes, and we will work with the government and we're prepared to try to be helpful if we can," Kerry said.

The foreign minister, meanwhile, told Mexican radio later Friday that his government has the situation under control.

"Mexico has all the elements needed to work toward and create the conditions needed for institutional governance sought by Michoacan's citizenry," Meade told Radio Formula.

Michoacan has become the most pressing security issue facing Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, who inherited a bloody war on drugs from his predecessor in 2012 that has left more than 77,000 people dead since it was launched in 2006.

The government says it is making inroads in its crackdown against the cartel, announcing the arrest Thursday of two senior Knights Templar members.

Also on Thursday, vigilante militia members announced that they had returned to villagers several hundred acres of land that had been once been seized by the cartel.

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