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Mexico turns anti-cartel vigilantes into legal police force

TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico--Authorities have begun handing blue police uniforms and assault rifles to vigilantes in western Mexico, legalizing a movement that formed last year to combat a vicious drug cartel.

Scores of farmers lined up Saturday at a cattle ranch to receive uniforms of the newly created rural state police force in Tepalcatepec, a founding town of the self-defense militias in the lush agricultural state of Michoacan.

The units were also making their debut in the neighboring town of Buenavista, which revolted in February 2013 against the cult-like Knights Templars gang because local police failed to protect them.

“With this, we become legal,” said white-bearded vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran, nicknamed “Papa Smurf,” after slipping into his blue uniform. “We are part of the government.”

Some 100 new rural police officers then sang the national anthem at a formal swearing-in ceremony in the town square. The government later said 450 officers were sworn in.

“From now on, you are in charge of defending your brothers, your families, your neighbors and anybody who can be harmed by organized crime,” said Alfredo Castillo, the special federal security envoy to Michoacan.

The federal government, which had previously just tolerated the vigilantes, has warned that anybody found carrying weapons illegally after Saturday's deadline to join the police will be arrested.

After the authorities took down three of the four main Knights Templar leaders, the vigilantes signed an agreement last month to register their guns and store them at home, or join the rural force.

Proud Moment

Vigilante leaders said they still had to hash out details like salaries and who would be in command, though they would work alongside the regular state police.

The militia has faced divisions among its leadership, but more than 3,300 out of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes have signed up to join the police force, officials said.

Despite the deadline, Castillo said the vigilantes could be granted a few more days to be deputized in other towns because of an unexpected high demand.

“I am proud of wearing this uniform,” said Arturo Barragan, a 35-year-old truck driver. “We are in a struggle that at some point must have a beginning and an end.”

The rise of the vigilante movement, which spread to some 30 towns and chased out many cartel members, brought fears that it could turn into a dangerous paramilitary force in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente (Hot Land).

The violence in Michoacan turned into one of the biggest security challenges to President Enrique Pena Nieto, who deployed thousands of troops to restore order last year and named Castillo as his special security envoy this year.

Divided Movement

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

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Vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran puts on an official rural police shirt, before the start of a ceremony in Tepalcatepec, Mexico on Saturday, May 10.

(AP)

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