Prosecutor: Mexico vigilantes tied to drug cartel

MEXICO CITY (AP) A federal prosecutor in Mexico said Friday that a group of vigilantes in western Mexico appears to have links to the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.

The vigilantes in the town of Buenavista in western Michoacan state have claimed they are defending the town against the Knights Templar drug cartel.

But Assistant Attorney General Mariana Benitez said at least one of 34 vigilantes detained this week has been the subject of criminal complaints and also has "clear connections" to the Jalisco New Generation drug gang, as do other members of the group.

Soldiers raided the town this week and detained the vigilantes after the group kidnapped local police and seized police vehicles and weapons. Benitez said some of detainees fired shots during the raid.

On Thursday, Assistant Interior Secretary Eduardo Sanchez said the Buenavista vigilantes "are people armed by drug cartel groups that operate in Jalisco, Michoacan and Colima," referring to two states near Michoacan. That is roughly the area where New Generation operates; the gang is fighting the Michoacan-based Knights Templar.

Soldiers seized 18 assault rifles and 15 pistols, and the detainees will face at least weapons possession charges.

The army raid in the town of Buenavista represents the strongest blow yet against the growing movement of "self-defense" vigilante groups that has seen masked townspeople throw up checkpoints in several parts of southern and western Mexico.

The groups say they are fighting violence, kidnappings and extortions carried out by drug cartels, but concerns have surfaced that the vigilantes may be violating the law, the human rights of people they detain, or even cooperating with criminals in some cases.

Sensitive over their lack of ability to enforce public safety in rural areas, official have largely tolerated vigilante groups that have sprung up in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state.

But the Buenavista vigilantes apparently crossed the line when they took over the town's police facilities, kidnapped officers and seized police weapons and vehicles earlier this week.

The vigilantes in Buenavista and the nearby town of Tepalcatepec popped up in February with suspiciously sophisticated weapons, printed T-shirts and clothing that doesn't reflect the usual mix of participants. In other towns, vigilantes are mostly ragged farmworkers with old, single-shot hunting rifles.

A professionally printed banner, of the kind often used by the Knights Templar, was hung by a roadside last week accusing the Buenavista vigilantes of being criminals working for a drug gang.