NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — At a heavily fortified checkpoint, one of 600 in the area, Leonardo Quintero demanded that the driver of the Hummer not just hand over his cellphone but also open his most recent text messages.

NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — At a heavily fortified checkpoint, one of 600 in the area, Leonardo Quintero demanded that the driver of the Hummer not just hand over his cellphone but also open his most recent text messages.

Quintero scrolled through, searching for possible links to a criminal group.

The driver, who identified himself as Fernando Moreno, looked annoyed. Nearby, federal police and soldiers looked on, the only semblance of government authority in this volatile region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, in the western state of Michoacan. When Quintero tried to look through the purse of the driver’s wife, Moreno threw up his arms and exploded, "Who the … (expletive) are you?"

"I represent the people," Quintero responded as fellow members of the self-defense group from nearby Tancitaro quickly moved in to quell tensions and allow Moreno to continue his journey.

The exchange underscores the federal government’s predicament as it tries to restore security by sending thousands of federal forces to patrol the area alongside armed citizens such as Quintero. Some analysts say the government’s tacit recognition of the self-defense groups ultimately undermines the authority of the state. Nowhere in Latin America have paramilitaries, vigilantes or self-defense groups built the rule of law, they say.

"The fact that the government had initially opted to support the self-defense groups was the equivalent of fostering anarchy," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, senior associate and security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Given the level of integration between organized crime and the social fabric of some of these remote communities, the government’s initial decision revealed a lack of thorough understanding on the part of those government decision-makers."

The dicey situation in Michoacan has arisen at a sensitive time for the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto. With the country showing sluggish growth, the president highlighted what he calls "Mexico’s moment" via a series of high-profile policy overhauls in 2013, in education, the country’s energy and telecommunication industries and politics — moves aimed in part at attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment.

On Feb. 19, Mexico will host President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the city of Toluca, in Pena Nieto’s home state of Mexico. The focus will be the future of the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

But the situation in Michoacan, analysts say, underscores why Mexico still feels like a nation being built on quicksand, with weak judicial institutions, a conviction rate of less than 5 percent, and growing frustration among residents, who are taking up arms to find their own brand of justice, posing a serious challenge to Pena Nieto.

"In the short term, the Mexican government’s effort to enforce rule of law in Michoacan may take away from President Pena Nieto’s desire to focus public attention primarily on economic reforms, but it’s vital for the government to deal with the violence that Mexicans face in many parts of the country," said Andrew Selee, executive vice president and a Mexico specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "If done right, this renewed attention to public security could reduce the homicide rate and help strengthen rule of law."

Once outlawed by the government, the militias are seen as heroes in a territory where generations have used brute force, not laws, to determine outcomes. Scenes similar to the one in Nueva Italia is are repeated up and down a string of 19 communities where homegrown vigilantes have taken control in an effort to kick out the organized crime gang known as the Knights Templar.

Historically, Michoacan has been in the forefront of revolutionary movements, from the war of independence to the Christian uprising and now the growth of militias, which began last February when local farmers, tired of paying extortion, having daughters and wives abducted and impregnated and seeing sons forcibly recruited by the criminals, took up arms.

Within a few months, the vigilantes were mounting large, military-style operations with modern weapons, setting up checkpoints and cordons around towns and raiding known gang hangouts.

The actions have raised questions about who is financing the effort. Is the money coming from a rival drug gang known as the Jalisco New Generation cartel? From wealthy farmers affected by extortion fees? From immigrant groups in the U.S.? Or perhaps from the federal government, a suspicion that grew following the crash of a plane carrying militia leader Jose Manuel Mireles, who was injured.

Federal police airlifted the leader to a Mexico City hospital, where he has been recuperating under guard by federal troops.

Some analysts have drawn parallels between the developments in Michoacan and those in Colombia, where two decades ago right-wing paramilitary groups arose to battle leftist rebels. The paramilitary groups spread terror in the areas under their control and went into cocaine production themselves.

Estanislao Beltran, a lime farmer and a leader of the self-defense groups, rejects any comparisons to Colombia and denies ties to cartels.

"The last thing we want is another cartel operating in Michoacan," he said. "This is our whole reason for putting our lives on the line, to clean out the mess by these criminals so we can go back to work in our plots of land."

At the checkpoint in Nueva Italia, Quintero keeps guard amid the banter of his fellow self-defense members and the smell of pot. Quintero owns a plot of land and grows avocados and corn. He started paying the Knights Templar 1,000 pesos — about $75 — a week in extortion fees, hoping the money would buy him freedom from harassment. Instead, he and his two brothers were kidnapped and held for ransom, which was paid by family and friends on both sides of the border.

Once released, he headed north to California’s San Joaquin Valley, but work was scarce. He returned to Michoacan five months ago and joined the self-defense group, monitoring checkpoints two or three days a week and working on his plot the rest of the time.

"We’re doing the job that the government should be doing," he said. "But from birth the government has been the problem, not the solution. That’s why I came back, and that’s why many of us are here, to be part of the solution. This is the only way we know how to find justice."

Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News