Mexican vigilantes are searching an extensive cave system in the hunt for Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, the last fugitive boss of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

Vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran (known as "Papa Smurf") said there were signs the cartel had used the caves near the town of Arteaga in Michoacan state.

Vigilantes gather outside cave on outskirts of Arteaga in search for Servando Gomez, also known as
Vigilantes gather outside cave on outskirts of Arteaga in search for Servando Gomez, also known as "La Tuta", leader of the violent Knights Templar drug carteReuters
Vigilantes spokesperson Estanislao Beltran (R), known as Papa Pitufo (Papa Smurf), with a fellow vigilante
Vigilantes spokesperson Estanislao Beltran (R), known as Papa Pitufo (Papa Smurf), with a fellow vigilanteReuters
A vigilante uses a flashlight as he enters a cave during a search for La Tuta
A vigilante uses a flashlight as he enters a cave during a search for La TutaReuters

Vigilantes accompanied by federal forces took control of Arteaga, the hometown of Gomez, the only one of the cartel's top four leaders who has not been captured or killed.

Gomez once worked as a schoolteacher in the area. He had some support among townspeople because his gang handed out money to residents.

Beltran said some townspeople tried to prevent the vigilantes from entering Arteaga to hunt for cartel gunmen.

Armed vigilantes stand on a stage in Arteaga, assuring locals they will find Servando Gomez, known as
Armed vigilantes stand on a stage in Arteaga, assuring locals they will find Servando Gomez, known as "La Tuta", leader of the violent Knights Templar drug cartelReuters
Vigilantes argue with the driver of a pickup truck after they heard music associated with the Knights Templar playing from his vehicle, on the outskirts of Arteaga
Vigilantes argue with the driver of a pickup truck after they heard music associated with the Knights Templar playing from his vehicle, on the outskirts of ArteagaReuters
Vigilantes rest inside a barricade on the outskirts of Apatzingan, in Michoacan state
Vigilantes rest inside a barricade on the outskirts of Apatzingan, in Michoacan stateReuters

The vigilantes sprang up in February 2013 to fight the cartel's extortion demands, kidnappings and killings. Armed with assault rifles, they travel from town to town in pickup trucks and set up highway checkpoints, seeking to expel gangsters from the largely agricultural state.

The government is trying to register and rein in the vigilantes. The federal government has given the vigilante groups until 10 May to demobilise and has offered them the option of signing up as members of an army-controlled Rural Defence Corps.

A soldier conducts an optical examination on a vigilante, as part of a programme to create a rural police force and to register their weapons
A soldier conducts an optical examination on a vigilante, as part of a programme to create a rural police force and to register their weaponsReuters
Jose Manuel Mireles, a leader of the vigilantes' Self-Protection Police, waves during a march to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the group of civilians who took arms to fight the drug cartels
Jose Manuel Mireles, a leader of the vigilantes' Self-Protection Police, waves during a march to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the group of civilians who took arms to fight the drug cartelsAFP
Hipolito Mora and Estanislao Beltran, aka
Hipolito Mora and Estanislao Beltran, aka "Papa Pitufo" (Papa Smurf), leaders of the self-protection militia, hug each other during a party held to celebrate the vigilante group's first anniversaryAFP
A vigilante arrests a suspect in Apatzingan, considered the centre of operations of drug cartel Knights Templar
A vigilante arrests a suspect in Apatzingan, considered the centre of operations of drug cartel Knights TemplarReuters
A car belonging to vigilantes in Aguililla
A car belonging to vigilantes in AguilillaAFP