Federal police said the shootings occurred Sunday on the outskirts of the seaport of Lazaro Cardenas as vigilantes tried to push farther into the city, which is considered one of the cartel's last strongholds. The spokesman for the self-defense movement, Estanislao Beltran, said the vigilantes appeared to be a legitimate group from the nearby town of Caleta de Campos.
The movement rose up a year ago to fight the cartel's extortion demands. To fight back, the Knights Templar began financing groups that disguised themselves as vigilantes, wearing similar printed T-shirts and claiming to be defending their towns.
Prosecutors in western Michoacan state said Monday that the five dead belonged to a pseudo-vigilante group.
"The five dead people are said to belong to a false self-defense group that was presumably financed by a criminal group, and which for that reason is not recognized by the Self-Defense Council of Michoacan," the state prosecutor's office said in a statement.
Lazaro Cardenas was once one of the Knights Templar's most lucrative strongholds. The cartel exported iron ore that it mined or stole in Michoacan to China through the Pacific coast port. Federal forces took control of the port in November, and on Monday the city's mayor was detained on suspicion of aiding the cartel.
The federal envoy to Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, said Mayor Arquimides Oseguera was being questioned about allegedly participating in kidnapping and extortion. Oseguera has not been formally charged.
The Knights Templar demanded extortion payments from almost every conceivable business and worker in Michoacan, and apparently controlled large swaths of the state economy.
The offensive against Lazaro Cardenas comes a few days after self-defense forces supported by federal police moved into the hometown of the cartel's last major fugitive leader, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez. Most of the cartel's top leaders have been killed or arrested.
While the vigilantes have met with success, the confusing proliferation of false self-defense groups in Michoacan and instances of alleged looting and killings by legitimate vigilantes have led the federal government to tell the vigilantes they have to demobilize by May 10.
But Castillo noted that the vigilantes, who usually carry assault rifles that are prohibited for civilian use, only have to turn in their heaviest weapons, such as .50-caliber sniper rifles. They will be allowed to keep, but not publicly carry, AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, as long as they register them with the army.
The vigilantes are also being encouraged to join a police agency known as the State Rural Force. Castillo said 685 vigilantes have applied to join.
Vigilantes are also being encouraged to join the unpaid "rural self-defense corps" under the command of the army. But there has apparently been little interest in joining these little-used, decades-old volunteer groups.
Beltran, the vigilante spokesman, said others may decide not to join any law enforcement agency and may simply register their weapons in order to keep them at home to defend themselves.
But it does seem clear the government wants to end the vigilantes' habit of publicly carrying their weapons at roadside checkpoints and on patrols of pickup trucks full of armed men.
Asked whether the vigilantes will demobilize by the May 10 deadline, Beltran said: "That is the proposal, but it could be before or it could be after," depending on how much of the Knights Templar cartel's remaining structure can be dismantled in the next two weeks.