- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

MEXICO CITY (AP) - A top leader of the Knights Templar drug cartel was killed Monday in a clash with Mexican marines, officials said.

The officials said Enrique Plancarte died in the central state of Queretaro, but they wouldn’t give other details. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

The Interior Department tweeted that Plancarte’s identity was being verified and that it would have more information Tuesday.

Plancarte was considered one of four leaders of the Knights Templar cartel, which is based in Michoacan state. The gang has been chased out of many Michoacan towns by vigilante groups that have demanded authorities go after the gang’s leaders.

In recent weeks, Mexican security forces have killed the gang’s top capo, Nazario Moreno, and arrested Plancarte’s uncle and Templars leader Dionisio Plancarte.

Another leader Servando Gomez, known as “La Tuta,” remains at large.

Earlier Monday, authorities announced they had arrested another leader of a vigilante “self-defense” force in Michoacan and accused him of participating in the killing of a rival. It was the second such arrest in less than a month.

The arrests come amid a broadening government crackdown on the vigilantes, who took up arms a year ago to fight the Knights Templar. The groups became popular in many towns because they were able to kick out the cartel, whose gunmen had demanded extortion payments from local residents, farmers and businesses.

The vigilantes have demanded that authorities arrest the top leaders of the Knights Templar as a condition of laying down their weapons.

The self-defense groups brought their own form of lawlessness to largely agricultural Michoacan, with rivalries, alleged thefts and possible links to a rival drug gang based in the neighboring state of Jalisco.

The federal government envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said at a news conference Monday that the leader of the vigilante group in the town of Yurecuaro, Enrique Hernandez Salcedo, was arrested for illegal weapons possession. But Castillo added that prosecutors plan to also charge him with ordering the killing of the mayor of the nearby town of Tanhuato, Gustavo Garibay.

Castillo alleged Hernandez Salcedo organized the March 22 killing of the mayor because Garibay “was opposed to the presence of the self-defense forces in the town of Tanhuato.”

He said authorities had previously detained 14 members of the Yurecuaro vigilante group under Hernandez Salcedo’s command. Five of those, including one who was later found dead, allegedly participated in the killing of Garibay, waiting for the mayor outside his house and attacking him as he emerged.

Some of them implicated their leader in the crime, Castillo said.

Garibay was wounded in a similar attack in 2012, and his secretary was slain in February.

The government had tolerated thousands of vigilantes toting assault rifles, until the March 11 arrest of vigilante leader Hipolito Mora on charges of having participated in the killings of two members of a rival vigilante faction.

In the last week, Castillo said, federal and state authorities have arrested more than 50 members of the self-defense groups on various charges. There have been reports that some vigilantes are taking advantage of their position to loot properties abandoned by Knights Templar bosses.

Estanislao Beltran, the spokesman for the vigilante movement, said he knew Hernandez Salcedo as a fellow self-defense leader, but said the movement would not cover up for anyone accused of crimes.

“Anybody who is guilty of something has to pay for it,” Beltran said.


Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.

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