Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
Villagers belonging to a self-defense group stand at a checkpoint in the town of Las Colonias, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, Nov. 5, 2013. Self-defense groups now claim several thousand members, competing with the Kights Templar cartel in raw numbers if not firepower.

Vigilante groups seize control of towns in western Mexico

Towns across Michoacan have kicked out gangs via armed civilian uprisings. But is one illegal armed group supplanting a more powerful one an improvement?

Rogelio Valencia peered out from a sandbag bunker outside Tepalcatepec in a fertile region of Mexico’s Michoacan state, keeping an eye cocked for marauding gangsters.

“They might come in 10 or 12 pickups. But we are prepared,” says Mr. Valencia, a civilian with a pistol tucked in his waistband and a two-way radio at hand.

Tepalcatepec is in a “liberated” region of Michoacan state, where an armed uprising of civilians has succeeded in lifting a yoke imposed by a crime group with a feudal-sounding name, the Knights Templar, which keeps a searing and heavy hand on the majority of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities.

It is a success story of sorts, if you call one illegal armed group supplanting a more powerful one as improvement.

It is also part of the dramatic panorama on display in Michoacan in western Mexico, a state that’s been virtually controlled by organized crime for seven years, and perhaps longer.

Extortion by the Knights Templar reached such a degree that President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered the removal of all city police in the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico’s busiest, on Nov. 4 and deployed soldiers to oversee port activities.

Criminal chaos and rampant corruption have surged so strongly in recent months that a Roman Catholic bishop, Miguel Patino Velazquez, issued a pastoral letter in mid-October bluntly assessing the region’s dilemma.

“The state of Michoacan has all the characteristics of a failed state,” Mr. Patino wrote.

Most mayors and municipal police forces “are subject to or in cahoots with criminals, and the rumor keeps growing that the state government is also at the service of organized crime,” Patino wrote.

Federal police and the army are deployed in the state but “not a single one of the capos of organized crime has been captured, even though their whereabouts are known,” he wrote.

After issuing the letter, threats arrived at Patino’s diocesan headquarters in Apatzingan, and the Mexican church whisked him out of Michoacan earlier this month.

For avocado grower Jose Alvarado Robledo, the prelate’s words are gospel.

“The government lost control. Organized crime is in control of the state except in the towns that have risen up in arms,” says Mr. Alvarado, a leader of one of the armed self-defense groups that have emerged in six municipalities in the state’s northern area.

Alvarado says “about 5,000” civilians have joined the self-defense groups. They’re armed with “shotguns, ram’s horns (AK-47s), AR-15s, .22s, hunting rifles,” he says. “Sixty percent of these weapons have been taken from the Templars.”

Alvarado says the self-defense groups would remain armed and on patrol until authorities “hand over the heads of the four leaders of the Knights Templar.”

A Templar leader, Servando Gomez, posted a YouTube video in April in which he accused a rival cartel from neighboring Jalisco state, New Generation, of financing the self-defense groups, a charge the groups’ leaders adamantly deny.

For now, travelers arriving in “liberated” areas pass through two sets of roadblocks – one operated by soldiers and another by armed self-defense groups with no legal authority other than the support of townspeople.

Inside Tepalcatepec, which is set amid rolling hills of mango and lime groves, merchants voiced relief that the extortion of the Templars had been lifted.

“If you didn’t pay, they ran you out of town or they chopped off your head,” says Vicente Diaz, owner of a dry goods store.

Residents say accountants working for the gangsters charged storeowners a monthly fee, imposed a tax on all vehicles, put a tariff on each crate of harvested fruit, and were preparing to tax housing based on square footage.

“They came in and took measurements,” says Amador Cuevas, a cheese vendor. “They came into my mother’s house with a tape measure.”

What really set off residents, though, was the pillaging of girls and wives.

“If they liked your daughter, they’d say, ‘Bathe her up and I’ll be back in an hour for her,’” says Estanislao Beltran Torres, a 55-year-old agronomist.

Jose Manuel Mireles, a physician who leads the self-defense group in this city, says gangsters abducted 14 adolescent girls in December 2012 alone and got them all pregnant.

That’s when Mireles secretly began forming Tepalcatepec’s self-defense group, which emerged publicly on Feb. 24. A similar movement emerged the same day in a nearby town, La Ruana. Since then, the movement has spread, and gangsters have stayed away, though they’re twisting an economic noose around the breakaway region, even cutting off gasoline supplies for five weeks this autumn.

“They want to strangle the economy,” says a gas station owner, who asked not to be named for fear of his life. He says gangsters want $1,000 a month from him and other station owners.

Tepalcatepec Mayor Guillermo Valencia has fled, accused of working for the mobsters, allegedly giving them a cut of the municipal budget. One of the dozens of posters plastering City Hall carries Mr. Valencia’s photo and reads: “Wanted: The Biggest Templar.” Another refers to the mayor by his nickname: “Memo, don’t tell any more lies. You are a rat.”

Valencia now resides in the state capital, Morelia, although underlings say he remains in his post. He did not answer repeated calls to his cellular phone.

Mayors have fled four of the towns and cities with self-defense groups. Residents accuse them of colluding with the Knights Templar, sitting openly in cantinas and drinking tequila with top gangsters.

Michoacan, with its large seaport and key geographic location, has played host to a succession of drug trafficking groups. A branch of the Gulf Cartel dominated early in the last decade, replaced by La Familia Michoacana, a group with a pseudo-religious creed that moved into amphetamine production. To battle that group’s violence, which included beheading enemies, then-President Felipe Calderon in 2006 deployed federal forces to Michoacan.

When La Familia dissolved in 2011, a faction took the name Knights Templar – continuing with the crusading religious theme – and moved into extortion.

The group’s tactics include co-opting elected mayors through bribes and threats, and seizing control of municipal police, paying officers monthly retainers.

“They use the city police as their muscle. They pay them. And if they want somebody, they say, ‘Bring him here.’ It’s their armed wing,” says Alvarado, the avocado grower.

Soldiers and federal officials arrested the entire 25-member police force of Vista Hermosa, a town near the Jalisco state border, two weeks ago and charged some of them with abducting two federal police officers earlier in the week. That same day, authorities found the body of the mayor of Santa Ana Maya on a roadside. He’d been an outspoken critic of the Knights Templar.

At one self-defense checkpoint, guards played a cellphone video of a Knights Templar pickup caravan through the streets of Apatzingan in a “Mad Max” style parade. Each vehicle bristled with guards toting automatic rifles.

The extortion imposed on the single city of Tepalcatepec, which Mireles estimated brought the gangsters about $3 million a month, is writ larger across the state as a whole. Gangsters target the state’s chief exports, imposing “fees” on the state’s 1.3 million acres of avocado as well as its vast lemon and mango plantations.

Michoacan is also a major source of iron ore, and people knowledgeable about mining said gangsters had seized production at some mines and were selling ore to rogue brokers from China. Between stolen ore and a tax of $2 million per freighter laden with ore, Knights Templar were making up to $60 million a month from ore moving through Lazaro Cardenas.

Some experts accept that government control in much of Michoacan is weak, and even nonexistent.

Juan Francisco Torres Landa, a Harvard-trained lawyer who heads the nonprofit advocacy group Mexico United Against Crime, said the constitution endows the state with sole power to use force and to collect taxes.

“From a purely legal standpoint, we’re talking about a failed state because the state as we know it, and as the constitution demands, is no longer present,” he says.

Hipolito Mora, one of the most widely known of the self-defense force leaders, sighed when a visitor to La Ruana asked him how his ragtag band was handling public security issues in the town.

“We aren’t prepared for this. We’ve had no training as police,” Mr. Mora says.

He acknowledges that the self-defense forces operate illegally.

“We know we are breaking the law. We are conscious of this,” Mora said. But he added that citizens had nowhere else to turn against the Knights Templar. ‘They did whatever they wanted. No one protected us.”

He predicted that the self-defense groups would not disappear anytime soon.

“I’d like to be wrong, but I think it will take years,” Mora says.

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