The extortion of avocado growers in western Mexico has become so bad that 500 vigilantes from a so-called self-defense group known as United Towns, or Pueblos Unidos, gathered on Saturday and pledged to assist the police.
Vigilantes gathered for a rally armed with AR-15s and other rifles as well as a motley collection of shotguns in the city of Nuevo Urécho in the western state of Michoacan.
Drug cartels such as Viagra and the Jalisco cartel are charging avocado growers about $2,500 per hectare, he said.
Fed up with extortion demands and kidnappings, growers and farmers formed the group in 2020, and it now claims to have around 3,000 members.
“Many of us have fallen victim to this situation of kidnapping, extortion,” said a masked vigilante leader, who asked the gang not to use his name for fear of reprisal.
At the moment, the government appeared cautious to respond to a pledge by Alfredo Ramírez Bedola to disarm the state’s various self-defense groups.
“We reached an agreement with the mayor to increase the number of police”, said the vigilance leader, who is patrolling the area. “At the moment, we are putting away our guns, but we will be on alert to come out and support the police at any time.”
Pueblos Unidos has held armed rallies in several towns of Michoacan in the past year, but has always said they will task the officially formed security forces to quell criminal gangs.
Mexican law prohibits most citizens from owning nearly all firearms, except for extremely low-capacity hunting rifles or shotguns.
But Michoacan has a history of armed civilian “self-defense” vigilante movements from 2013 and 2014. The vigilantes of the time managed to chase down the dominant Knights Templar cartel, but rival cartels such as the Viagra and Jalisco cartel moved in. Kidnappings, killings and shootings have prompted thousands to flee their homes.
The Mexican army has sent troops to the kingdom, but only to act as a buffer between the warring cartels, trying to ensure that neither invade the territory of the other gang.
But soldiers do little or nothing about illegal gang activities taking place within a few hundred yards of their posts.
This prompted Michoacan residents to take up arms again, facing massive extortion by Viagra, Jalisco and other gangs.
This time around, the self-defense movement is mostly moving in avocado-growing areas that were not the epicenter of the 2013 vigilante rebellion.
As avocados have become a more widespread and lucrative crop, drug cartels and gangs have begun to collect protection payments from growers.
While previous self-defense groups have been infiltrated or captured by drug gangs, Pueblos Unidos leaders said they were not linked to any warring gangs and are willing to put away their guns.
“We have never captured a city,” said a masked vigilante leader. “We’re not part of a cartel or anything like that.”