Mexican vigilantes celebrate first anniversary

Members of the Self-Protection Police shout slogans as they march to celebrate the first anniversary of the groups of civilians who took arms to fight the drug cartels in Tepalcatepec community, Michoacan state, Mexico, on February 24, 2014.

LA RUANA, Mexico - Hundreds of vigilantes marched in western Mexico on Monday with rifles slung over their shoulders to commemorate the first anniversary of their uprising against a cult-like drug cartel.

Around 800 people attended a mass held on a former altar that had been built by the pseudo-religious Knights Templar gang in La Ruana, one of the first towns to take up arms in the state of Michoacan on February 24, 2013.

The self-defence militia destroyed the altar and its crusader red cross after chasing away gang members last year. Residents replaced it with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Women in traditional Michoacan dresses and children, who were given the school day off, participated in the march alongside men carrying shotguns and assault rifles.

"Today marks one year since the struggle to end the oppression that the residents of this place endured, as well as the humiliation, disappearances, extortion, kidnappings," Catholic Priest Jose Luis Segura told the assembly.

"It is also time to remember our friends who fell in the struggle," Segura said, adding that 16 members of the self-defence militia who have been killed and 40 others who were arrested by the authorities.

The movement was founded in La Ruana a year ago by lime grower Hipolito ora, almost at the same time as another militia was formed in the nearby town f Tepalcatepec by physician Jose Manuel Mireles.

Since then, the movement has spread to around 20 towns in the Michoacan region known as Tierra Caliente region. The vigilantes say they have 20,000 people in their ranks.

The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto reacted by deploying almost 10,000 federal police and military troops who took control of security in the region last month.

In January, the federal authorities also decided to legalize the vigilante ovement.

"If we see that this new strategy is good for the movement, it will go on. If not, we will have to find alternatives," militia spokesman Estanislao Beltran told AFP.

The Knights Templar say the vigilantes are a proxy militia for the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel, a charge the movement denies.