Mexico's government urged vigilantes on Monday to quit their growing armed struggle against a drug cartel and go home, saying federal forces will handle security in their embattled western towns.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong made his plea after "self-defense" forces seized another town in the troubled western state of Michoacan, gaining ground in their struggle against the Knights Templar gang.
But a vigilante leader, Estanislao Beltran, told AFP that the civilian militiamen were not ready to drop their weapons in their year-long battle in a lime and avocado growing region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country.
"We can't abandon our weapons because the moment that we do, organized crime will come after us and our families," Beltran said from Nueva Italia, the latest town to be seized on Sunday.
Admitting that Michoacan faced a security "crisis," Osorio Chong signed a new security pact with Governor Fausto Vallejo for federal forces to take over the responsibilities of state and local police.
"The self-defense groups are asked to return to their places of origin and resume their normal activities," Osorio Chong said after the emergency security talks in the state capital, Morelia.
But he did not say how many forces would be used for the new effort, which comes eight months after President Enrique Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops and federal police to Michoacan in an mission that has failed to contain the unrest.
The attorney general's office said in a statement that it was sending 11 helicopters as well as 70 agents and investigators to the state.
The turmoil in Michoacan has become the biggest security crisis of Pena Nieto's 13-month-old administration. He inherited a drug war that has claimed more than 77,000 lives in the past seven years.
The vigilantes formed almost a year ago, arguing that local police were unwilling or unable to curb the cartel's violence and extortion rackets.
Ignoring repeated government warnings that their expansion would not be tolerated, the civilian militias seized Nueva Italia, which was considered a Templar bastion.
The vigilantes say they have now surrounded the gang's presumed headquarters, the city of Apatzingan, which they have made their next target.
Apatzingan was a ghost town on Monday, with stores closed in the city of 123,000 people that is a vital trade hub for the region's lime, avocado and mango exports.
The Templars and some officials have accused the self-defense forces of being a proxy force for the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge the vigilantes deny.
But analysts say the government has tacitly allowed the vigilantes to do security work for them, a risky tactic that could replicate Colombia's experience with violent paramilitary militias.
Osorio Chong invited the vigilantes to join the regular police forces and warned authorities would "not tolerate" people using illegal weapons.
The security pact includes the creation of an academy to train local police as well as $18.7 million in funds for prevention programs to "rebuild the social fabric," Osorio Chong said.
For his part, the state's much-criticized governor announced that he would now regularly work from Apatzingan and other towns of Tierra Caliente.
In Nueva Italia, vigilantes armed with assault rifles manned checkpoints to protect the town from any cartel counter-attack after they seized the town in a shootout that wounded two militiamen on Sunday.
"We can't give up our weapons when they (the authorities) have not even captured one of the (cartel) leaders," said Beltran, the vigilante leader.
Soldiers were nowhere to be seen around Nueva Italia on Monday but many stores reopened in the town of 32,000 people.
Jorge Vazquez, another leader of a vigilante group that controls the town of Aguililla, said the Templars had abandoned Nueva Italia but could fight back.
He said it was unclear when "the war will start, when they will begin to fight."
"It looks like they have merely retreated to the mountain and they have not used the firepower that they possess," he said.