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Jan 22, 9:11 PM EST

Mexico removes security envoy from troubled Michoacan

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MORELIA, Mexico (AP) -- The federal security commissioner appointed a little over a year ago for the troubled western state of Michoacan confirmed Thursday that he is being withdrawn by Mexico's government.

Security envoy Alfredo Castillo will be replaced by an army general, Felipe Gurrola, who will play a more limited role leading federal security forces in Michoacan, a largely agricultural state known for its limes and avocados but also social unrest and drug gang violence.

In a speech, Castillo gave a chilling description of how completely the pseudo-religious Knights Templar cartel once controlled everything from local police forces to industry, commerce and even everyday chores in what threatened to become a "failed state."

"Organized crime determined when farmers would harvest their crops," he said.

"Municipal police functioned as an armed wing of the cartel, acting as everything from lookouts to hired killers," he added. "In many cases, the local police chief had been named" by the cartel.

Castillo said the gang controlled Michoacan's prisons, it had information on how much money each city government received and when, and it demanded a cut of every activity from sales at small shops to exports of iron ore.

The state and local governments were so infiltrated by gang members that killings weren't investigated, he said. "Killings weren't even counted. Many people had to bury their relatives without even a death certificate."

Families whose relatives had been kidnapped were forced to hand over properties, with the transfer "legalized" by a notary public, he added.

That began to change in early 2013 when farmers and ranchers organized citizen vigilante "self-defense" groups to fight the cartel. The cartel was severely hurt, but the heavily armed groups soon got out of hand and Castillo was sent by the federal government in January 2014 to rein in and eventually regularize the vigilante groups.

He recruited many of the vigilantes to a new rural police force, but he said Thursday that most applicants were rejected as unfit for employment as police.

Critics accused Castillo of acting as a sort of viceroy, brushing aside weak or interim state governors and negotiating deals with what appeared to be few limits or little oversight. And he has drawn more criticism since the rural police forces he helped form have started fighting among themselves.

Gurrola, the new security liaison, will oversee almost 6,000 federal police and troops in the state, but will apparently avoid more wide-ranging policy issues.

"The federal government will remain in Michoacan without scrimping on resources and funding, for as long as it takes," Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said.

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