Some 100 gunmen from a "community police" force in Mexico's Michoacán state on Jan. 12 seized the town of Nueva Italia -- precipitating a shoot-out with gunmen from the Knights Templar cartel who had been in control there. Two members of the vigilante force were wounded before the Templars retreated, leaving the "community police" in control of the town. It is unclear if there were casualties on the cartel's side. It seems there were no "official" police in the town, nor any army troops.

Traveling in a convoy of pick-up trucks and armed with rifles, the "community police" also seized several hamlets in Parácuaro, Apatzingán and other municipalities -- where several trucks and other vehicles deemed to belong to cartel collaborators were burned. Jan. 10 saw a confrontation for control of the municipal palace in the center of Apatzingán. The vigilantes also briefly set up a roadblock on the coastal highway, where more vehicles were stopped and burned -- a total of 13 across the state in three days of violence.

"Community police" groups now operate in 15 of  Michoacán's 113 municipalities, charging that the "official" authorities have surrendered to the cartels -- or are outright collaborating with them. The force that seized Nueva Italia is said to have come from the nearby municipality of Tepalcatepec. Increasingly, the Mexican media use the term "autodefensas" to refer to the movement. Ominously, the same word is used by the blood-drenched right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia.

The  Tepalcatepec Community Police on their Facebook page display photos of the three days of action, showing some wearing professionally printed shirts emblazed with the words "GRUPO DE AUTODEFENSA" (self-defense group). Captions read, "MICHOACAN EN GUERRA" (Michoacán at war). 

But in the neighboring (and even more conflicted) state of Guerrero, the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities and Community Police (CRAC-PC) issued a statement rejecting a recent report from Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) which found that the "community police" movement was becoming a paramilitary network. CRAC-PC leader Eliseo Villar Castillo said that the "community police" operate legally, citing a Guerrero state law allowing establishment of auxiliary police patrols. Last month, some 500 armed "community police" members held a public march in the Guerrero town of Ometepec to mark the anniversary of the law's passage 18 years ago.