Mexico arrests high-profile vigilante leader

Mexico City (AFP) - Mexican officials on Friday announced the arrest Jose Manuel Mireles, the face of a powerful anti-crime vigilante group in the western state of Michoacan.

Mireles was detained in the Pacific coastal port city of Lazar Cardenas after entering a nearby town with more than 100 armed supporters, officials said.

A medical doctor by training, the tall Mireles, who sports a thick moustache and usually wears a cowboy hat, co-founded the group and was for months it's chief spokesman and its most visible personality.

Mireles was arrested with "weapons of exclusive military use," the Michoacan state government said via Twitter.

Along with Mireles more than 100 armed men who claimed to be self-defense force members were also arrested, an army source told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

- Vigilantes go legal-

Michoacan, on Mexico's Pacific coast, is a key trafficking area in the drug trade to the United States.

Farmers and other civilians in the state took up arms in February 2013 claiming that the local police was too incompetent or corrupt to protect them from local criminal gangs, especially the cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel.

In response to the security crisis as violence escalated, the Mexican federal government deployed some 10,000 federal police and troops in the state since late 2013. The larger force has helped clamp down on the Knights Templar, but not stamp them out.

The government was slow to react to the vigilantes, but finally in May 2014 they agreed to give the "self-defense group" members uniforms and weapons, and organize them into a "state rural" police force.

The vigilantes claimed to have 20,000 people in their ranks. Of those, more than 3,300 signed up to join the new police force.

The movement split however and others refused to sign up with the government.

Authorities said they found cases of criminals posing as vigilantes, so they vowed to arrest any armed group that failed to register with the authorities.

- Mireles dismissed from group -

In May the council of self-defense forces in more than 30 Michoacan towns announced Mireles's dismissal for making public statements without the council's clearance, and for unspecified "actions" that allegedly cost the lives of five civilians.

Mireles laid for weeks, but reappeared on Thursday when he entered the town of La Mira in a convoy of some 60 vehicles along with 600 followers armed with automatic rifles.

"We entered this community because we received a report here of people being kidnapped and forcefully disappeared," Mireles told AFP.

La Mira is in the municipality of Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico's most important Pacific coast port. The Knights Templar gang have been active in the port, selling illegally mined iron ore to China and importing chemicals that can be used to produce synthetic drugs.

Mireles said Thursday that he had registered with authorities, but one of the soldiers that helped arrest him on Friday told AFP that the vigilante leader had neither a weapons permit nor documents showing that he signed up with authorities.

Mireles "agreed to join the Rural Force but never followed through," said Alberto Gutierrez, an ex-vigilante and now a Rural Force commander. Gutierrez said that he fears his forces may clash some day with the wayward vigilantes.

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