By ARMANDO SOLÍS
NUEVO URECHO, Mexico (AP) — Extortion of avocado growers in western Mexico has gotten so bad that 500 vigilantes from a so-called “self-defense” group known as United Towns, or Pueblos Unidos, gathered Saturday and pledged to aid police.
The vigilantes gathered for a rally in the town of Nuevo Urecho, in the western state of Michoacan, armed with AR-15s and other rifles, as well as a motley collection of shotguns.
They said that drug cartels like the Viagras and the Jalisco cartel have been charging avocado growers ‘war taxes’ of about $1,000 per acre ($2,500 per hectare).
Tired of the extortion demands and kidnappings, growers and farmers formed the group in 2020, and it now claims to have almost 3,000 members.
“Several of us have been victims of this situation, of kidnappings, extortions,” said one masked vigilante leader who asked his name not be used for fear of reprisals from the gangs.
For the moment, the vigilantes appeared willing to respond to a pledge by Gov. Alfredo Ramirez Bedolla to disarm the state’s various ‘self defense’ groups.
“We reached agreements with the mayor to increase the number of police” patrolling the area, the vigilante leader said. “For the moment, we are putting away our guns, but we will be on alert to come out and support the police at any moment.”
Pueblos Unidos has staged armed rallies in several towns in Michoacan over the last year, but have always said they would rather have officially constituted security forces do the work of expelling criminal gangs.
Mexican law forbids most civilians from owning almost all firearms, except for extremely low caliber hunting rifles or shotguns.
But Michoacan has a history of armed civilian “self defense” vigilante militia movements from 2013 and 2014. Back then vigilantes managed to chase the dominant Knights Templar cartel out, but rival cartels like the Viagras and the Jalisco cartel have moved in. Kidnappings, killings and shootings have prompted thousands to flee their homes.
The Mexican army has sent troops to the state, but only to act as a buffer between the warring cartels, trying to ensure that neither invades the other gang’s territory.
But soldiers do little or nothing about illicit gang activities occurring just a few hundred yards from their checkpoints.
That has led Michoacan residents to once again take up arms, in the face of rampant extortion by the Viagras, Jalisco and other gangs.
This time around, the self-defense movement is mostly operating in the avocado-growing regions that were not the epicenter of the 2013 vigilante uprising.
As avocados have become a more widespread and lucrative crop, drug cartels and gangs have taken to extorting protection payments from growers.
While previous ‘self-defense’ groups have been infiltrated or taken over by drug gangs, Pueblos Unidos leaders said they were not associated with any of the warring gangs and are willing to put away their guns.
“We have never taken over any town,” said one masked vigilante leader. “We are not part of a cartel or anything like that.”