The law in their hands

The law in their hands

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Vigilantes ride on the back of a pick-up truck while driving in a convoy in Mexico's Michoacan state, the site of a bitter struggle between them and one of the country's most powerful drug cartels - the Knights Templar.

Heavily armed vigilantes have been battling the drugs gang as federal forces stand by, raising questions about how the government will restore order in the lawless region.

. TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

A looter makes off with boxes of beer from a burning truck by a road-block, which was allegedly set up by followers of the Knights Templar.

Scenes of violence and chaos have plagued Michoacan state, where so-called self-defence groups have fought pitched battles with the Knights.

The vigilantes have snubbed a government order to stand down and disarm. Instead, they operate openly, manning roadblocks and patrolling unopposed as heavily armed troops and state police drive by, turning a blind eye.

. ZICUIRAN, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The vigilantes' most visible leader Jose Manuel Mireles, pictured above, said there could be no talk of putting down guns in Michoacan while the leaders of the Knights Templar remain at large.

"I am not in favour of disarmament, quite the contrary," he said on a video posted on the Internet.

. TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The violence has cast a spotlight on President Enrique Pena Nieto's security strategy.

Since coming to power a year ago the president has pushed economic reforms, seeking to keep the focus off of drug-related violence that has claimed over 80,000 lives since 2007.

. Nueva Italia, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Vigilante fighter "El Love," pictured sitting in the home of a Knights Templar leader who fled with his family, says he is longing for an end to a grinding cycle of extortion and murder.

"They're just people who extort and kill, and they live like kings. Just look at this!" El Love said, refusing to give his real name for fear of reprisals from the Knights Templar.

"If they come back, I'll kill them," he said.

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Slideshow

Jose Manuel Mireles (3rd left), a vigilante leader, poses for a photograph with other fighters.
. CHURUMUCO, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Jose Manuel Mireles (3rd left), a vigilante leader, poses for a photograph with other fighters.

A vigilante holds his gun while standing at a checkpoint in Tepalcatepec.
. TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

A vigilante holds his gun while standing at a checkpoint in Tepalcatepec.

Another vigilante sports a tattoo reading "Michoacan".
. PARACUARO, Mexico. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

Another vigilante sports a tattoo reading "Michoacan".

With his gun slung over his shoulder, a vigilante shops in a store in Poturo.
. POTURO, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

With his gun slung over his shoulder, a vigilante shops in a store in Poturo.

Vigilantes stand outside the municipality after entering the town of Nueva Italia.
. NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

Vigilantes stand outside the municipality after entering the town of Nueva Italia.

A group of vigilantes block a road after hearing rumours of a possible ambush in Tierra Caliente.
. TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

A group of vigilantes block a road after hearing rumours of a possible ambush in Tierra Caliente.

Military personnel patrol the area around La Ruana and Tepalcatepec.
. TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Military personnel patrol the area around La Ruana and Tepalcatepec.

Police in riot gear stand guard outside a townhouse in Apatzingan.
. Apatzingan, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Police in riot gear stand guard outside a townhouse in Apatzingan.

The dead body of Mario Perez lies in a coffin during a wake at his family home in Antunez. Residents reported that soldiers opened fire when the town's inhabitants tried to stop them from disarming vigilantes. Perez, a local fruit harvester, was not a member of the vigilante groups, his family told Reuters.
. ANTUNEZ, Mexico. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The dead body of Mario Perez lies in a coffin during a wake at his family home in Antunez. Residents reported that soldiers opened fire when the town's inhabitants tried to stop them from disarming vigilantes. Perez, a local fruit harvester, was not a member of the vigilante groups, his family told Reuters.