"Self-defense" groups confronting a drug cartel in Mexico's western state of Michoacan have agreed to join government law enforcement forces after months of firefights with gang members, often with federal police and troops standing by.
"The self-defense forces will become institutionalized, when they are integrated into the Rural Defense Corps," the Mexican interior department said in a statement. The corps are old and largely forgotten quasi-military units.
Vigilante groups, who estimate their numbers at 20,000 men under arms, began springing up almost a year ago to fight the Knights Templar cartel, which ruled many parts of Michoacan with an iron fist, demanding extortion payments from businesses, farmers and workers.
The civilian forces have gained ground in recent months, seizing a number of towns from the gang, sometimes after intense gunbattles. They have refused to lay down their guns and return home until all of the cartel's major leaders are arrested.
Officials announced that one of the cartel's top four leaders was captured early Monday.
Even before the new agreement, police and soldiers already largely tolerated, and in some cases even worked with, the vigilantes, many of whom are armed with assault rifles that civilians are not allowed to carry.
The military will give the groups "all the means necessary for communications, operations and movement," according to the agreement.