Mexico sets date for vigilantes to register guns

FILE- In this Feb. 9, 2014, file photo, flanked by weapons a man from a self-defense group sits inside a barricade at the entrance of Apatzingan in Michoacan state, Mexico. Vigilantes who have driven a quasi-religious drug cartel from a series of towns in western Mexico entered Apatzingan on Saturday and were working with government forces to clear it of cartel gunmen. The Mexican government announced Tuesday April 15, 2014, that vigilante groups in the western state of Michoacan will have until May 10 to register their guns and decide whether to join the army’s “rural defense corps.” (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte File)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Mexican government says vigilante groups in the western state of Michoacan will have until May 10 to register their guns and decide whether to join the army's "rural defense corps."

The government had made little headway in a plan announced in January to put the estimated 20,000-strong vigilante force in the western state of Michoacan under the control of the army.

But the government commission for Michoacan said late Monday it had agreed to extend the deadline for joining the rural defense corps, a little-used, century-old body that armed farmworkers to fight bandits and uprisings in the countryside.

The heavily armed "self-defense" groups have posed a thorny problem for the government. While they have earned popularity by driving the vicious Knights Templar drug cartel out of many parts of Michoacan, some of the vigilantes themselves have been accused of looting and killing. Dozens of others remain in jail on charges of carrying weapons such as assault rifles that are prohibited for civilian use.

The government originally got little response when it announced the extension of the rural defenses to Michoacan in January, but now it is pressing the vigilantes to sign up by May 11, when the two units planned for Michoacan are to be up and running.

According to figures provided by the army to The Associated Press, the corps remains tiny. Its current force of 9,068 "rurales" are volunteers, and are spread out across roughly two-thirds of Mexico's 31 states. The corps appears to have played no role in extremely violent states like Tamaulipas and Sinaloa, where there are no rurales units.

However, there are units in many of the states that have been least affected by drug violence, including Quintana Roo, Aguascalientes, Puebla, Hidalgo and Guanajuato.

The commission said the Michoacan force would be up and running by May 11.

Vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran said the self-defense forces would not turn in their guns by the May deadline, but were open to joining some of the government forces. "Nobody is going to disarm," Beltran said in a telephone interview.

Vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles told local media that under the agreement reached Monday with federal authorities, the vigilantes would turn in their heaviest weapons, like grenade launchers and machine guns, but would keep — but not carry — guns such as assault rifles, though those too are prohibited for civilian use under Mexican law.

Mireles and Beltran said the vigilantes have demanded the release of members arrested earlier for weapons possession, but the government statement said the agreement only promised to transfer those arrested on such charges to a jail closer to their homes in Michoacan. Many are being held at prisons as far away as the Gulf coast.

The government is desperately trying to sort out the "legitimate" vigilantes — farmers, ranchers and farmworkers who rose in arms over a year ago to fight the Knights Templar extortion demands — and criminals who have infiltrated them.