Mexico's small-business 'vigilantes'

The business community in western Michoácan, Mexico, is trying to regain its footing after years of terror under the thumb of the Knights Templar criminal gang.

It's a warm Thursday evening in a ragtag park that doubles as a traffic circle in this western Mexico town, and Carlos Halabe is bidding good night to the last of the two dozen small-business owners who came out for this weekly "economic rebirth" meeting.

"We're the small-business version of the vigilantes," says Mr. Halabe, president of the chamber of commerce and owner of a local plywood business. "We may be a smaller form of the self-defense groups, but we're determined to move forward. It's up to us to make it happen."

Apatzingán, the commercial center of a region in Michoacán state that produces limes, mangoes, and a majority of the avocados consumed in the United States, is in recovery mode. Like a town rebuilding after a devastating storm, Apatzingán is trying to regain its footing after years of terror under the thumb of the Knights Templar criminal gang.

A nascent will to break old patterns tells Halabe that, despite all the pitfalls still out there, Apatzingán might this time be on the move.

Store owners who paid a monthly fee to the gang to stay in business, who shelled out cash to recover a kidnapped family member, or who acquiesced to orders to close up shop, now attend the open-air business meetings and publicly demand a new direction for the town.

Their goal? To build a community that never again allows the Knights Templar – or any other gang – to come in and take over.

"There is no greater power than that of the citizens, but we have never come together to exercise that power, and that's what we must do now," says Rafael, an auto repairman whose remarks draw enthusiastic applause. (Despite his willingness to speak out in the town square, Rafael declines to give his last name, citing lingering dangers.)

Chamber president Halabe tells the crowd that the economic renewal plan his delegation is working on with the federal government includes some tax cuts, utilities subsidies, and incentives to local lime growers to get their groves producing again.

About 60 percent of Apatzingán's economy is tied to the valley's lime trees, which make up a substantial share of Mexico's $100 million annual lime crop. A key factor in restarting a withered economy will be coaxing back the thousands of landowners who abandoned their fields or lost them to criminal elements because of intimidation.

The local chamber counts about 600 members, but Halabe says absentee landowners in the valley and a reluctance among the bigger business owners, like large fruit-packing houses, to get involved in economic rebirth efforts is slowing down the initiative. Another impediment is a state government and local police force that had links to criminal gangs – ties that may not yet be cut, he says.

"There is more uncertainty than lack of public security now, and that's our big challenge," Halabe says. "We can't say we are on solid ground yet, but if we can boost confidence in our own ability to produce changes, then we can move forward."

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