MORELIA, Mexico - Mexican soldiers have detained 34 vigilantes who formed part of a "self-defense group" that allegedly kidnapped police officers and seized police equipment earlier this week in the western state of Michoacan.
The army raid Thursday in the town of Buenavista represents the strongest blow yet against the growing vigilante movement that has seen masked townspeople throw up checkpoints in several parts of southern and western Mexico.
The vigilante groups say they are fighting violence, kidnappings and extortions carried out by drug cartels, but concerns have surfaced that the vigilantes may be violating the law, the human rights of people they detain, or even cooperating with criminals in some cases.
On Friday, a federal prosecutor said the vigilantes appear to have links to the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel. The vigilantes said they are defending the town against the Knights Templar drug cartel.
But Assistant Attorney General Mariana Benitez said at least one of 34 vigilantes detained this week has been the subject of criminal complaints and has "clear connections" to the New Generation gang.
Sensitive over their lack of ability to enforce public safety in rural areas, officials have, up to now, largely tolerated vigilante groups that have sprung up in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state.
But the Buenavista vigilantes apparently overstepped the bounds of that tolerance when they took over the town's police facilities, kidnapped officers and seized police weapons and vehicles earlier this week.
The army presented the 34 detainees Thursday, and said that 29 assault rifles had been seized in the raid, along with 15 pistols. The army did not detail how many of those were police weapons.
The soldiers freed five municipal police officers and the police chief and recovered a half dozen vehicles the vigilantes had seized.
Some of the detainees wore printed T-shirts with the legend "Community Police," and some shouted to journalists, "We are community police!"
There is a semiofficial, semirecognized "community police" system in some parts of Mexico, where heavily Indian communities mete out forms of traditional justice, but the "self-defense groups" are not part of it.