MEXICO CITY — Mexico essentially legalized the country’s growing “self-defense” groups Monday, while also announcing that security forces had captured one of the four top leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel, which the vigilante groups have been fighting for the last year.
The government said it had reached an agreement with vigilante leaders to incorporate the armed civilian groups into old and largely forgotten quasimilitary units called the Rural Defense Corps. Vigilante groups estimate their numbers at 20,000 men under arms.
The twin announcements may help the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto find a way out of an embarrassing situation in the western state of Michoacan, where vigilantes began rising up last February against the Knights Templar reign of terror and extortion after police and troops failed to stop the abuses.
“The self-defense forces will become institutionalized, when they are integrated into the Rural Defense Corps,” the Interior Department said in a statement. Police and soldiers already largely tolerate, and in some cases even work with, the vigilantes, many of whom are armed with assault rifles that civilians are not allowed to carry. Full story for BostonGlobe.com subscribers.