MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexican authorities said Thursday they have arrested 11 suspected criminals who disguised themselves as vigilantes from an anti-crime "self-defense" force in the western state of Michoacan.
The arrests illustrated the murky nature of the 20,000-strong vigilante movement, which sprang up a year ago to combat the Michoacan-based Knights Templar drug cartel.
The Michoacan state prosecutors' office confirmed the detentions occurred Wednesday in the town of Ziracuaretiro, near the city of Uruapan, and said the men had been turned over to federal prosecutors on weapons-possession charges.
A federal official who was not authorized to be quoted by name said the detainees were carrying 22 guns when they were caught. He said many of them were wearing the white "self-defense" force T-shirts that have become the informal uniform of the movement.
The vigilantes are largely farmworkers and land owners who had been victims of the cartel's systematic extortions, kidnappings and murders of local farmers and ranchers.
Because the assault rifles they use are technically illegal in Mexico, the vigilantes often carry two weapons for each man: an AR-15 or AK-47 and a smaller, legal sidearm or shotgun if police are around.
The federal official said some members of the Knights Templar cartel have sought to join the vigilante movement following its success in apparently clearing the gang from many Michoacan towns.
Vigilante movement spokesman Estanislao Beltran declined to comment on the detentions, but he previously acknowledged that some former cartel gunmen might have joined the movement and called for an eventual house-cleaning.
It is often hard to tell who is really a member of the vigilante movement. The fighters move around in pick-up trucks marked only with "self-defense" slogans painted or taped onto the vehicles, along with the name of their home town.
The federal government recently announced it would not tolerate abuses by the vigilantes, who are popular in many Michoacan towns for shaking off the cartel's dominance.
But the federal official said vigilantes, or the former cartel gunmen who have joined the movement, are now demanding protection payments from some businesses, such as iron ore mines, although at lower prices than the cartel charged.
"If before the Knights Templar demanded $15 or $17 per truck, they are now saying 'Give us $7,'" the official said.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.