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Mexico’s president says he won’t accept vigilantes

July 20, 2021 GMT
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a ceremony marking the third anniversary of his presidential election at the National Palace in Mexico City, Thursday, July 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a ceremony marking the third anniversary of his presidential election at the National Palace in Mexico City, Thursday, July 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president said Tuesday he will not accept vigilantes arming themselves, and suggested they are serving local political bosses or gangs.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was responding to a drill held over the weekend by about 100 vigilantes in the southern state of Chiapas. The group, which calls itself “The Machete,” said it was formed to evict drug traffickers from Indigenous communities.

López Obrador said they were using that as an excuse, and suggested the vigilantes may have gotten their motley array of weapons from criminals.

“In no case will armed groups be accepted,” López Obrador said. “This can be used as an excuse, that there is a lot of crime, and that’s not what it is. It could be a political confrontation.”

While the president said his administration is still studying the group that formed in the Chiapas township of Pantelho, he refused to believe they were just residents fed up with crime and killings.

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“Either it is a question of political maneuvering in the region, control by bosses,” he said, “or it is criminals. We have to see where they got their weapons.”

The previous administration briefly embraced so-called “self-defense” groups in the western state of Michoacan in 2013 and 2014, before most were found to be infiltrated by drug gangs. López Obrador said that is a mistake he isn’t going to repeat.

But he did not say whether his administration would try to disarm them. As part of his “hugs, not bullets” strategy, López Obrador has studiously avoided open confrontation with protesters, drug cartels and almost anyone else.

But that strategy has neither reduced crime nor homicides in Mexico.

The township of Pantelho has seen a number of confrontations since mid-June in the region and local human rights groups say around 2,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in recent years because of the fighting.

It was unclear who organized or armed the Machete vigilantes, who appear to include members of the Tzotzil Indigenous group. The men appeared mainly masked, with black T-shirts bearing the group’s logo, a pair of crossed machetes.

In a statement posted earlier on social media, a masked spokesman for the group claimed around 200 residents of Pantelho had been killed in recent years by “drug traffickers.” The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels appear to be fighting for control of the area, which is used to traffic both drugs and migrants from neighboring Guatemala.

“We must defend the lives of our community,” the unnamed spokesman said. The group took responsibility for a shootout in Pantelho in June in which several people died.

“We entered (the town) not to attack the people, but to expel the professional killers and drug traffickers,” according to the statement. “Once we have freed it from the professional killers and drug traffickers, we as self-defense forces will withdraw, because we do not seek money or power for ourselves.”