MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's government appears to be split about whether it should talk to armed vigilante groups, or treat them as criminals.
President Andres Manuel López Obrador said Thursday he disagreed with his assistant interior secretary's decision to attend a ceremony with vigilantes, who often call themselves "self-defense" groups.
"We cannot have illegal groups performing law enforcement duties. That cannot be allowed," Lopez Obrador said.
Though they formed starting in 2013 to fight drug cartels, the vigilante groups have often been found to be infiltrated by criminal gangs themselves.
The debate came to a head Wednesday when Ricardo Peralta, an assistant secretary of the interior, attended the groundbreaking of an agricultural processing plant in the vigilante-dominated community of La Huacana in the western state of Michoacan. He did so in the company of vigilante leaders.
"He decided to attend because they invited him," Lopez Obrador said. "I do not agree."
"We talked about this issue in the security Cabinet, and I have asked them to obey the mandates of the constitution and the laws," Lopez Obrador said, suggesting Peralta and his colleagues at the interior department got a dressing down.
The interior department has been given the responsibility for implementing some of Lopez Obrador's most controversial initiatives, such as an amnesty program supposedly aimed at "political prisoners," some of whom had also been vigilantes.
Peralta had earlier drawn criticism for meeting with a similar vigilante group in the violence-plagued northern border state of Tamaulipas. The group he met with at an event there has been described as having ties to the Gulf drug cartel.
Speaking at the event in La Huacana on Wednesday, Peralta acknowledged there had been criticism.
"In recent days people have been saying we were meeting with organized crime groups," Peralta said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "I do not see anybody here but hard-working people. I do not see anybody but leaders of social groups."
But the town has a serious history of defying the government.
In May, vigilantes in La Huacana abducted a squad of a half dozen soldiers, took their weapons, and pushed and insulted them until they agreed to return a .50 caliber sniper's rifle that had been seized by a previous patrol.
Lopez Obrador himself later invited the army squad to the presidential offices and congratulated them for keeping their heads and not firing their weapons. The president has said he favors dialogue and rejects the use of force.
But the meetings have also drawn the ire of state governments, who hotly resent any sign of federal support for vigilante groups, which often clash with state police forces and fight bloody turf battles among themselves.
On Wednesday, the Michoacan state governor claimed the federal government was giving money to people he called criminals.
"It hurts that they are rewarding people who humiliated, harassed and mistreated Mexican soldiers," Michoacan Gov. Silvano Aureoles said. "What did the assistant secretary come to do? To give money to criminals," Aureoles said. "Are we going them money so they will stop being criminals? That will only embolden them."
In fact, it is often hard to tell the difference between true self-defense groups — some of which exist legally in indigenous communities, where normal police are absent — and criminal-infiltrated vigilantes. Because they formed to fight a local drug cartel that was extorting and kidnapping residents, the groups often received weapons, money and recruits from a rival drug cartel.
It would not be the first time the Interior Department — which is the country's top domestic security agency — has appeared to differ with the president over the issue.
Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero kicked up a scandal earlier this week when she said, "We are in talks with many (armed) groups, and they have told us they do not want to continue with this violence." Her office was quickly forced to clarify that she was talking about vigilantes rather than drug cartels.
The Interior Department said Tuesday that "the federal government does not have and will not hold talks with any organized crime group."
Lopez Obrador is particularly vulnerable on the issue, because he has publicly announced he will no longer continue the strategy of targeting drug capos for arrest, leading to speculation he might be seeking a sort of truce with the gangs.
The opposition National Action Party said in a statement that Lopez Obrador's policies appear to add up to one big amnesty.
"The only thing in doubt is whether these (talks) are the first steps in a formal amnesty for drug traffickers, because there has already been a de-facto amnesty since Feb. 1, when the president announced the end of the drug war and government drug seizures fell," the party wrote.