Mexico vigilante leader says it would be best if drug cartel bosses were killed, not captured

A convoy of Mexican soldiers patrol a road in Tepalcatepec, in Michoacan State, Mexico, on January 15, 2014, where government officials held a meeting with members of the Self-Protection Police.

A vigilante leader in a Mexican state torn by violence said on Wednesday it would be better to kill the heads of the region's dominant drug cartel than arrest them, and rejected a government order to disarm.

Vigilantes have been battling the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacan for almost a year, creating a major security problem for President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Federal security forces have turned a blind eye to the armed vigilantes despite calling on them to disarm.

Reuters reporters saw police and army convoys steadily drive past sandbag roadblocks manned by members of Michoacan's so-called self-defense groups.

Some farmers in this impoverished, rugged region of lime and avocado plantations, marijuana fields and crystal meth labs say the Knights Templar have murdered and extorted locals for years.

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"It may sound ugly to say kill them, but if it happened it would be for the best," Hipolito Mora, a 58-year-old farmer turned vigilante leader, said in an interview at a small ranch in the village of La Ruana, deep in Knights Templar territory.

"If they are not killed, they should be put in jail. (The government) should put an end to this murderous organization and leave us to focus on our work."

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong this week ordered the vigilantes to lay down their weapons, but Mora and other vigilantes refuse. Some have warned of a massacre if the government tries to disarm them by force.

"I don't know how we'll react," he said from beneath a cowboy hat, a wallet emblazoned with a picture of Daffy Duck dangling around his neck. "I hope they don't try, and that they help find the Knights Templar leaders soon."

"We ask them not to interfere with us, don't bother us, we have been doing their job for some time. Let them first disarm the Knights, detain them, and then we'll lay down arms."

Osorio Chong said on Wednesday the government had three leaders of the Knights Templars in its sights.

Fronted by a former school teacher, the Knights Templar is a cult-like group that styles itself on the medieval military order that protected Christian pilgrims during the Crusades.

The vigilantes range from a rag-tag assortment of farmers carrying basic weapons from machetes and side-arms to shotguns and AK-47s to others with apparent military training, crew-cuts and sophisticated weapons like gleaming Israeli assault rifles.

(Editing by Dave Graham and Eric Walsh)