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May 29, 2017

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Mexican vigilantes in cartel battle face disarmament order

MORELIA, Mexico--Vigilantes who have battled a drug cartel in western Mexico face a deadline Saturday to store their guns or join a police force amid divisions and recriminations within the movement.

The authorities are handing out uniforms to vigilantes who have agreed to sign up to a new rural police force in the lush agricultural state of Michoacan.

The units will make their debut in the towns of Buenavista and Tepalcatepec, two of the first municipalities that revolted last year against the cult-like Knights Templar gang because local police failed to protect them.

The federal government, which has tolerated the vigilantes, has warned that anybody found carrying weapons illegally after the deadline would be arrested.

The rise of the vigilante movement, which spread to some 30 towns, brought fears that it could turn into a dangerous paramilitary force.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who deployed thousands of troops to Michoacan last year to restore order, said he expected the vigilantes to disband or join the police.

"It's an agreement, and I expect it to be respected," said Pena Nieto, who is facing one of his biggest security challenges in Michoacan.

Divided Movement

The transition comes amid deep divisions within the vigilante movement, accusations that it is infiltrated by cartels and the recent arrest of one of its founders.

On Thursday, the council of self-defense forces in more than 30 towns announced the dismissal of its chief spokesman, Jose Manuel Mireles.

The council accused him of making public statements without clearance that undermined the movement.

It also said "recent actions" by Mireles had cost the lives of five civilians, but it did not elaborate. Authorities said Friday they are investigating whether Mireles had a role in the deaths.

Mireles could not be reached for comment.

Another founder of the movement, Hipolito Mora, was arrested in March on charges that he was behind the murders of two fellow vigilantes. He rejects the charges.

Mireles, a tall, mustachioed doctor, told a radio station this week that the vigilante movement was divided and criminals had infiltrated it.

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