John Pedro Schwartz

The third installment of a three-part investigative series.

Origins and Fate of the Vigilantes

Buenavista and La Ruana, Tierra Caliente, Michoacán 
March 23, 2014 — Tierra Caliente is on fire, and I’ve spent all day with the folks who are trying to quench it without burning to death or spreading the flames: the Michoacán “self-defense” groups, or autodefensas, who in February 2013 took up arms against the Knights Templar, a massive criminal cartel specializing in extortion, kidnapping for ransom and the illegal methamphetamine trade. The battles they waged, coupled with the gangland slayings inherent in the drug trade, helped make Michoacán the second most violent state in Mexico, with 2,646 homicides in 2013. The fight to end organized crime in the state continues to rage, as the vigilantes, having ousted the Templars from over a quarter of the state, gird up to take control of the remaining 76 municipalities while defending the barricades they’ve already erected in their hometowns. 

To investigate the status of the vigilante war, the conditions that gave rise to it and the consequences for both state and society of thousands of civilians, mostly small farmers and ranchers, raising arms against their criminal overlords and their political accomplices, I traveled to the Templars’ home region of Tierra Caliente. 

A day spent running around with the vigilantes, interviewing their chiefs and witnessing the infighting between a commander and a civilian council member in the town of Parácuaro ends back in Apatzingán, the region’s largest city. I find lodgings on a tenebrous street, but one from which the fear of nocturnal assault, robbery, rape and involuntary organ donation has dissipated thanks to the work of the autodefensas, but also of the federal police who sometimes quarter here with their ladies of the night clattering in tow. 

Tierra Caliente calls for further incursions. I take a bus to Buenavista, which, together with neighbors La Ruana and Tepalcatepec, forms the triangle of towns -- all within 20 miles of each other -- that gave birth to the vigilante uprising in February and March of 2013.

After a chavindeca (melted cheese and fried meat between two tortillas), an agua de horchata (a rice, cinnamon, and vanilla drink) and a chat with Nicole, 5, and Katy, 10 (American names are fashionable in Mexico now because they confer the status that working-class Mexicans assume upon spending time in the United States), I head for the plaza. There, Estanislao Beltrán, chief of the self-defense groups, has just emerged from a town hall meeting with local citizens clamoring for the return of the property stolen from them by Hipólito Mora. 

A founding leader of the autodefensas, Mora was arrested March 11, 2014, for the murder of two rival self-defense group members from Buenavista. In addition to a double-murder charge, Mora faces a raft of accusations that he kept for himself lands and houses stolen by the Templars that he in turn seized. Quien roba a un ladrón tiene cien años de perdón, they say here: Whoever steals from a thief gets 100 years of pardon. But the Mexican proverb doesn’t apply to the vigilante who fails to restore the purloined property to its rightful owners, especially when the owners are your neighbors and you style yourself their defender. 

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Estanislao Beltrán prepares to address a community reclaimed from the cartel. (Photo ©Nathaniel Parish Flannery)

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Beltrán marches beside Hipólito Mora (center left) before Mora's March 2014 arrest. (Photo ©San Diego Union Tribune)

Twice-wronged neighbors are still pressing their deeds on Beltrán under an oak tree when my approach is intercepted by a young autodefensa armed and mourning: “Hipólito Mora murdered my father. I want to tell you the story so you get it right.” As Rene Sanchez introduces himself, a grizzled civilian comes up to me with his own grievance against the man. “Mora stole three cows from me -- and half a kilo of coke.” 

“So what you’re saying is that you yourself are involved in… ” I start.

“What?!”

“Things . . . outside the law?”

“But I’m honest! I don’t extort, I don’t kidnap, I don’t kill. I just sell. It’s business!”

“So you distinguish between organized crime, typified by Mora and the Templars, and ordinary drug trafficking?” I ask.

“You catch on quick.”

With the bereaved and the aggrieved on my flanks, up comes a stooped, elderly man who asks if I want to see a photo of him as a baby. He proceeds to flip open his wallet to a black-and-white picture of a smiling, nude infant sporting 12 inches of manhood. He’s still laughing when Beltrán comes up to me to clarify his purpose, lest I mistake his meeting with Mora’s plaintiffs for an indictment of his former comrade: “I’m not accusing anyone,” he says. Rene is, however, and he’ll tell the story of his father’s murder later tonight. 

In the meantime, I pay a visit to Mora’s hometown of La Ruana, where last year one-fifth of the population of 10,000 made their way 1,500 miles to the San Diego border to ask for asylum from the war that the Templars declared on residents after they formed self-defense groups and publicly challenged the drug cartel. The Templars made it deadly to pick or pack limes, taking away this fertile valley’s main livelihood. Gas had also become scarce because suppliers feared driving in, and the municipal president had just fled amid accusations of cartel ties. With the gangsters ousted in March 2013, social activity has returned to the countryside, which a means a fiesta for every occasion. A teenage girl is being crowned “Queen of Spring” by the side of the road as my taxi approaches the entrance barricade. Like all towns in Michoacán reclaimed from the Templars, La Ruana is still defended by the vigilantes.

Hunks of meat hanging on hooks catch my eye down the main street. The butcher is feeding chuck into a grinder while keeping an eye on the chicharrón, pork skins deep-frying in a vat of lard out on the sidewalk. The smell of grease and seasoning thickens the air as he explains how the Templars carved up the butchers: “We had to pay 2,500 pesos per cow at the slaughterhouse. They’d collect it right there,” he says, flashing a meat cleaver. 

The butcher is skeptical of Mora’s arrest for murder, though he admits that the autodefensa chief may have kept other people’s lands and goods for himself. But Mora is still a popular figure here. If he returns home from jail and the authorities come for him again, the people of the town will form a circle around him to prevent his re-arrest, the butcher tells me. This in spite of his next allegation that Mora took bribes from the Templars to keep the vigilantes pent up in La Ruana to prevent their taking control of any more towns.

“When the people rose up, the cartel threatened to send 300 assassins into town,” the butcher recalls. “All the people were scared, huddled in their houses. We wouldn’t go out.” 

Few venture out even now, but that’s mostly because of the scorching heat. Lovers and elderly take their pastimes indoors and leave the stone benches of the almost treeless plaza to bake in the sun. To call this town on a Saturday afternoon sleepy would be an understatement. Better to call it comatose, with sporadic signs of life.

A federale and I are buying strawberry popsicles when I spot the first stirring in the streets. A woman rides up on a scooter and asks him and a handful of his colleagues sitting in a truck for help. An autodefensa, she says, is throwing stones at her house. The police gird up to investigate. The young man always throws stones at her house, she doesn’t know why, and he won’t stop. 

“He must be drunk,” I offer.

“No, he does it even when he’s not drunk!” 

It would be easy to read this misdemeanor as the case of a vigilante gone bully with power -- a cautionary tale of what happens when young men start packing guns. But the incident seems to belong more to the genre of the odd nasty neighbor that gives these dusty hamlets their small-town charm. 
 
At Pizzeria El Gringo I meet Rafael, small and wiry, with gold-capped teeth and a green-capped head. He speaks good English, the result of spending 30 years in the United States, seven of them in the pen for drug conspiracy. 

“Federal charge,” he says. 

“Why’d you get into that?” I ask.

“Cuz I was a dumbass. When you see such a quantity of money, you lose your head.” 

But Rafael now works at the pizzeria – I watch him pile mortadella and pineapple toppings on a large pizza to go. The American owner (El Gringo) and his Mexican wife sold the business and joined the exodus in 2013. Rafael’s mother now doubles as his boss.

Rafael reports that there are still plenty of drugs available in town, even though the Templars got the boot last year. “The Templars would only allow their own people to sell drugs in the plaza. Now anyone can sell. They’d charge 4,000 pesos per kilo of marijuana instead of 700 pesos, which is what a kilo costs now.” Crystal meth, though, leads the region’s drug trade, manufactured as it is in secret mountain stills using imported raw materials. “They recently busted 1,000 methamphetamine pills from China.” 

He gives me a book with the translated title of Nazario: Idealist? Reformer? Vigilante? You Be the Judge adorned with cover images of Ché Guevara, Emiliano Zapata, independence war leader José María Morelos, comic book hero Kalimán and Porfirio “Glass Eye” Cadena, a Robin Hood-type from the Golden Age of Mexico’s radio-novels. It’s a hack hagiography of the recently killed Templar chief, Nazario Moreno. Moreno’s cannibalism, good works and life of crime earned him folk hero status among some Tierra Caliente rustics who shared his cultural formation nourished by the rebels and outlaws of media and lore. 

I will later read the book in Morelia over a bucket of beer at an outdoor café in the Plaza de las Rosas, opposite a sixteenth-century Dominican convent that eventually transformed into the first conservatory in the Americas and where music still trills through its second-story arcade. But we’re a far cry from Vallodolid (as the capital of the colonial province was then known) and its school where blue-blooded infantas learned to blend notes for the greater glory of the Spanish Viceroy and their patron, Santa Rosa María. We’re in La Ruana, so named after a “roan-colored” filly eaten by crocodiles at the junction of two rivers, whose bleached bones marked the spot for rendezvous and assignations among the town’s early inhabitants. 

As for the jailed autodefensa leader Mora, “[h]e was poor, just like us,” said a taxi driver. “He had nothing. Then he started having all this money and property. It went to his head.” Like the butcher, the taxi driver shows some sympathy for Mora, partly because of hometown ties, but mostly because he sees, lurking behind Mora’s arrest, a government conspiracy to quell the self-defense movement, the embarrassment it causes the state and the threat it poses to its monopoly on violence. As a woman in Parácuaro put it, “The government is trying to divide and conquer the autodefensas.” 

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Vigilantes and federal troops overlap patrolling in Michoacán's hinterlands. (Photo ©Nathaniel Parish Flannery)

What is certain is that the government is trying to integrate the vigilantes by requiring them to register their weapons with a view to joining either the Rural Defense Corps, a longstanding volunteer force that offers local assistance to national troops, or the State Rural Police, a newly created, paid force charged with carrying out police functions in rural zones and small towns. After May 10, 2014, anyone carrying illegal weapons will face arrest. Around 2,000 men have since enlisted in either of the two gendarmeries. Almost as many have failed to pass the prerequisite medical, toxicological and psychological exams. The rest have handed over their weapons or buried them for future use.   

Soon I’m back in Buenavista drinking Barrilitos in the dirt yard of an open-air store tended by a matronly woman while her husband nurses a plastic cup of beer after a sticky day in the tropics for both him and me. A blue canvas awning hangs overhead, and a growth of arrowleaf elephant ear half-fences the yard from the street so that the dust whipped up by the occasional car sprays the flowering plant instead of the eyes. Three cervezas get me through sundown, and then Rene calls.

I straggle up the street to the plaza where we met this morning. Rene, son of the murdered Rafael Sanchez Moreno, is joined by the son of the murdered José Luis Torres, both Mora’s alleged victims. We sit under a statue of Morelos in a shallow pool of light. Rene tells the story that his younger companion keeps to himself for the same reason that he withholds his name: for fear of retaliation.

“My father was upset because Hipólito, who was always poor, started acquiring properties, and he confronted him. Hipólito would use a family’s having mutual friends with the Templars as a pretext to take over their house and land. My father was respected, and people wanted him to be the leader of the self-defense forces in La Ruana. 

“Hipólito started spreading rumors that my father was the one guilty of these crimes, using Facebook and Youtube to sully his name. He told the local Bonilla Lara family that their son, who was killed by the Michoacán Family cartel, was in fact killed by my father. The dead man’s brother was addicted to crystal, and he started killing innocent people in town, including drunks in the street. His nickname was El Apiju. El Apiju was at first an ally of Hipólito’s. He would ask Hipólito, “Can I kill so and so?’ And Hipólito would say, ‘Yes.’ But Apiju killed so many people that Hipólito put him in jail. But he escaped one night and threatened to kill Hipólito. Since Hipólito was chief of La Ruana, he sent someone to kill Apiju in the center of town. He and his men blamed my father. Then Hipólito killed my father. 

“The day after the funeral, Hipólito found out that there was going to be a town-gathering against him. So he traveled to Morelia to ask the government for support since he thought they were going to kill him. Back in La Ruana, the townspeople wanted to kill his nine bodyguards at the barricade, and the federal police had to surround the bodyguards to protect them. The federal commissioner had a meeting the next day in La Ruana with Beltrán and Mireles, and all agreed to remove Hipólito from power as a leader of the self-defense forces. The following day Hipólito was arrested in Morelia.”

Rene’s claims reproduce the deposition made by the son of the victim Torres, the son who tonight holds his tongue, but whose testimony contributed to Mora’s detention in March 2014. For Mora’s side of the story, I seek out his lawyer, Eduardo Quintero, in the state capital.

Morelia, Michoacán
March 24, 2014 — Quintero reveals himself to be a portly, balding lawyer chain-smoking Chesterfields in an office musty with law books and dossiers. He’s the kind of man that, if you’re accused of double homicide, you want not just in your corner but also in your stead, taking the place of your body even as his words substitute for your deeds. Because nothing so purges the mutilated bodies of Rafael Sanchez Moreno and José Luis Torres of their visceral truth-value like the laxative of tedious legalese. Suffice it that Quintero’s summary of the declarations against Mora contained in the case file largely corroborates Rene’s story.

Mora’s case is important not so much because it points up the thin line between vigilantes and criminals in Michoacán or the risks inherent in the autodefensas’ acting outside the state. Many vigilantes I met offered examples of their returning stolen property, and all demonstrated awareness of the danger of becoming another cartel.

Mora’s case matters mostly because it shows that where the state is weak, power flows from the barrel of a gun, but even more from the community’s will. It is a commonplace to remark the absence not just of legal but of civic structures in places like Tierra Caliente. But just because justice and law enforcement are scarce doesn’t mean they go missing. It means that the pueblo -- the people -- steps into the void, just as the autodefensas have filled the security vacuum. Where there are community bonds, there is the potential for community action. In a remote town like La Ruana, locals deposit in the community the trust that Americans place in their government. El pueblo manda – “public opinion rules” – is a common refrain. Every autodefensa I spoke to in five towns in Tierra Caliente repeated, “Don’t take our word for it -- ask the people in the street.”

Here, the people in the street play the roles of both mass media and district attorney. The newspaper is often at a greater remove from the source than what one townsman tells another that a third told him. The justice system can -- even if it rarely does -- weigh facts impartially, but it takes a neighbor to judge your character. And Mora’s neighbors have rendered their judgment, based on a mixture of fact, rumor and close acquaintance, that the vigilante chief degenerated into a Templar-style thief and merits detention, even if the sense that he’s one of their own mitigates their anger.

As a grass-roots movement with popular support, the self-defense groups demonstrate the muscle of an otherwise passive civil society tortured into action. In fact, the policia comunitaria (community police), as the vigilantes are also known, grew out of the existing Association of Lemon Producers, Ranchers and Businessmen in Apatzingán. In Tepalcatepec and La Ruana, the community police drew their ranks from the local Cattlemen’s Association. The autodefensas’ integration into the Rural Defense Corps and the State Rural Police, now underway, exemplifies the cooperation between state and civil society that critics of Mexico’s eight-year war on drug trafficking call for.

The crucial role that the court of popular opinion plays in Tierra Caliente bears further illustration. Take, for example, the case of the ex-mayor of Tepalcatepec, who was driven from office in April 2013 and whom I interviewed in late March 2014 in Morelia in the lobby of the Hotel Virrey de Mendoza, where Guillermo “Memo” Valencia has installed his “court in exile.” The stained-glass ceiling, the rust-red walls, the wooden floors, the four-sided arcade, the period furniture, the reproductions of Velázquez and the classical music harken back to a time of Spanish colonial splendor as a cover for the supremacy of authority, even as Valencia’s tale of a Tierra Caliente town conflict pitting together politicians, gangsters and vigilantes calls to mind the unholy gyrations of ad hoc alliances.  

“On April 27, 2013, I traveled to Morelia. On April 28, a group of masked men armed with high-powered rifles came to the mayor’s office and threatened me with death if I returned. They were a group of sicarios [gunmen] headed by a brother of the Farías family. Since then, I haven’t been able to return to Tepalcatepec,” he tells me.

“I don’t have a problem with the self-defense groups. I have a problem with the Farías brothers, who are the caciques [strongmen] of Tepalcatepec, the owners of the town, the ones with money, the ones with arms. I won a tightly contested election, by 600 votes. I attained the mayoralty in 2012 against the will of Uriel Farías Álvarez, who was the mayor before me and of the same PRI party I represent. He tried to impose his candidate, I beat him in the internal elections. Then he supported the PRD party candidate in the general elections, and I beat him. And that was my sin.”

Valencia hands me a photocopy of an article from proceso, a liberal, independent magazine critical of the government and still credible despite being sued for publishing uncorroborated claims. “The Farías brothers are, according to national defense documents, related to the Jalisco New Generation cartel,” he says. The article is dated February 24, 2013, the same day that Uriel Farías helped launch the self-defense movement in Tepalcatepec. Citing the intelligence department attached to the Office of the Attorney General, the article identifies Farías as an ally of the recently captured Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. It notes that Farías was imprisoned in 2009 in the wake of ex-President Felipe Calderón’s military campaign against organized crime in the state, known as the Michoacanazo. It also reports that in 2012, a judge again indicated the presumed ties between the ex-mayor and the Millennium cartel, the latter a branch of the Sinaloa gang. In 2010, some members of the Millennium cartel splintered and formed Jalisco New Generation. Valencia’s claim about the Farías brothers’ mob ties thus has some evidence to support it.

“Farías’s brother threatened me because there’s a political conflict between me and Uriel. He wanted to perpetuate himself in power, and now that he has armed men, he used them to remove me from office…In May 2012, one year before the self-defense forces emerged, I solicited the governor, and here I have the proof.” 

He shows me the document. 

“I solicited a permanent presence of the army and the state and federal police in the municipality to combat the criminal groups, but there was no response. If the government had responded to my initial request for security in 2012, no self-defense groups would have emerged in Tepalcatepec.”

 Valencia shows me another letter, dated August 2013, four months into his exile, in which he requests the help of security forces in reinstating him. 

“The government has ignored me systematically. It’s easier for them to remove you from office than to give you security.” 

What comes next? 

“It’s difficult for me to see the future,” he says. “I don’t even know if I’ll be alive.”

Tepalcatepec, Tierra Caliente, Michoacán 
May 6, 2014 — If it were up to his nemesis, Valencia would still draw breath, in gasps. 

“I want to see Memo,” Farías tells me when I go to speak to him in Tepalcatepec, or “Tepec” as the town is known for short. “I’m going to beat him to a pulp. I’m not going to kill him, but I’m going to cudgel him senseless.” 

Farías blames his nine-month prison stint in 2009 on false allegations made by a protected witness that he was an associate of Jalisco drug lords; he denies even knowing them. Arturo, a young autodefensa close to Farías, explains that thousands of innocent people were swept up in the Michoacanazo. For proof, he cites the thousands of people who welcomed Farías at the town entrance when he was released from prison. Again, the logic of the pueblo knows best. 

According to Farías and Arturo, Valencia, the self-proclaimed foe and victim of organized crime, is actually a Templar accomplice. It was not Farías’s hijacking of the self-defense movement for political gain that led to Valencia’s banishment and death threat last year, they say, but a fateful decision the then-mayor made in late April 2013. 

After two months of skirmishes, with gunmen ambushing vigilante convoys under cover of corn fields, the Templars launched their offensive against Tepec. Locals informed the vigilantes that the Templars were marshalling for attack, and the vigilantes immediately called in the military. The townsmen prepared the defense, using heavy machinery to dig trenches and pits at the junctions of roads leading into town. The Templars struck in a fleet of 15-20 SUVs, zonked on drugs and armed with AK-47s and RPGs. The battle’s outcome: one autodefensa mortally wounded, several Templars dead, their bodies carried away by the fleeing convoy. 

“We were scared,” Arturo recalls. “But when we saw that we had driven them off, we took courage and thought, ‘They came at us with everything they had, and still we beat them off.’”

After the battle, the vigilantes rushed to City Hall to ask the mayor to send an ambulance for the bleeding autodefensa. They didn’t know that Valencia was away in Morelia. The staff got him on the phone, he denied the request, and the man died of his injuries. 

Why didn’t he authorize an ambulance? 

“Because his masters in Morelia didn’t let him,” Farías replies (for “masters,” read “Templars”). “So the pueblo got angry, and some of us went down to City Hall and threatened to kill him if he came back to Tepec.”

From the start, Valencia had held the vigilantes at a distance. “We had invited Memo to be our spokesman on the first day of the uprising, February 24, but he didn’t want to be a part of us," says Farías. “‘You could be the hero of this movie,’ I told him.” 

Farías links Valencia’s refusal to Templar involvement, even as the ex-mayor in Morelia defends his decision by a desire to uphold the law. 

Accusations of mob ties make the best mud pies, and the two of them have slung enough mud to rebury half of Pompeii.   

Tierra Caliente is do-it-yourself country, but this is not to be mistaken for jungle law: the law of the jungle prevails in the absence, not just of good government, but also of strong community. Whereas in Tepalcatepec, community is all-important, even if much of the land is covered in tropical forest. The rule of the strongest certainly triumphed under the Templars, but with the rise of the vigilantes, jungle law metamorphosed into DIY community rule, even as Morelia and Mexico City now seek to return Tepalcatepec to the government fold.

Tepec, a town of 20,000 inhabitants, is known for its beautiful women and its civilian self-defense groups, the originals in a movement that has metastasized to over a quarter of the state. I would add a third distinction: a hideous, unfinished building with two monumental onion domes, one mosaic, the other still bare, that dominate the downtown skyline. No one seems to know the identity of this Mexican Kremlin or when or why construction on it stopped (February 2013 and war with the Templars would be good guesses, respectively). But the fertility of the countryside redeems the town’s architectural barrenness. “If you poke a hole in the ground, 60 liters of water per second will come rushing out,” a local farmer tells me to account for the cornucopia of lime, papaya, orange, and grapefruit groves.

Agriculture, ranching, mining and small commerce provide the bulk of the natives’ revenue -- as it did that of the Templars, who began their rampage of extortion in 2011. 

My joint conversation with Arturo and Farías occurs in the afternoon. But it’s still morning, and I’m riding with the younger auto on a tour of some of the dozen self-defense bases skirting the town. 

“The Templars forced corn growers to sell their corn directly to them at low prices,” Arturo explains. “And only they were allowed to sell corn to the tortilla factories. Then they spread their monopoly to grains. They bought up all the sorghum that is needed to feed the cattle. They bought male calves at 22 pesos per kilo, each weighing on average 300 kilos. These days, male calves cost 34, 36 pesos per kilo. You can do the math and see how much money they stole.” 

The extortion got so bad that Arturo, together with many other small ranchers, stopped raising cattle altogether, driving the Michoacán livestock industry to historic lows. 

“You were working every day in the hot sun to make them money. Most of us here in Tepec live by ranching in one way or another, so we were all just working for the Templars.” 

The Templars took a bite out of the mining industry, too. 

“They charged eight pesos for every ton of iron ore extracted from the three mines in Tepec,” Arturo continues. “And they also charged for storage and shipping. They even extorted the Chinese who buy the minerals.”

Even town social life did not escape the mallet of Templar thunder. 

“The halcones (falcons; lookouts) would not let you talk to a girl in the street if they liked her. They would follow military convoys on their motorcycles and flip them off. They would always ride those 150cc Italica’s so they could get away easily,” says Arturo. “To go to Guadalajara, you couldn’t take the road that leads straight there. You had to take another road and go around, since otherwise the falcons would see you, and when you returned they would ask you why you went to Guadalajara.” 

Visits to the neighboring state’s capital aroused the suspicion of the Templars because of their rivalry with the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.

“People were sick of their abuses. That’s why they rose up.” 

We pull in at the largest restaurant in town, a midsized affair offering the ubiquitous chavindecas and a chilled agua de pepino (cucumber juice) that makes up for the warm air stirred by a dull fan.  

After lunch we seek the shade of a tree bench at the ganadera, the ranch that serves as the headquarters of the Cattlemen’s Association. Three or four cows graze in the distance behind a chain-link fence as Arturo recounts Day One of the uprising in Tepec.

“On Feb. 24, 2013, there was an annual meeting here of the association,” Arturo begins, glancing at the parking lot. “Eighteen hundred ranchers from Tepec and La Ruana were gathered. Out of them, maybe 30 families were in on the conspiracy. Fifteen of us, with masks and guns and T-shirts, stood up on stage and announced the formation of a civilian self-defense group. I had sent for T-shirts to be made by a friend in a neighboring state for fear of leaking the conspiracy. The crowd was scared at first. But once we pulled off our masks and showed the crowd that it was us, their fellow townsmen, they joined the cause.

“We spotted two gunmen called Chilorio and El Pozole. The crowd seized them, although in two or three days we saw them on the streets again. Then we went after the falcons and took them to the local jail. Everyone went home and dug up the guns they had buried during the Michoacanazo. The guns were rusty. Mostly shotguns and .22s.”

How did the townsmen come to have guns in the first place? 

“Some of them used to be Rurales,” or members of the Rural Defense Corps. “But even those who were not Rurales had guns. It’s the local culture. Ten, 15 years ago, you would see the people in the mountains carrying AK’s wherever they went. That was their custom.” Arturo himself brandished his father’s AK-47 that day. “My uncle had traded a cow for it.” 

Like most guns here, it came from the United States. Now he packs an AR-15 behind the seat of his truck and a Glock in a sling around his chest. As a Rural Defense Corpsman, he can carry the semi-automatic rifle only when he’s in uniform, and the handgun at all times provided it’s concealed.

The plotters of the uprising had previously shared their plans with allies in the military who were equally frustrated at their impotence in the face of Templar crimes. These soldiers assisted the vigilante cause. As for the municipal police, the autodefensas disarmed them but did not expel them since most were honest, and they couldn’t be sure which ones were not.

“The meeting at the ranch was at 3pm,” Arturo resumes. “By 6 p.m., 2,000 people wearing white T-shirts were in the streets. 

“We had good luck that day. On their way to Tepec to quell our revolt, the Templars ran into a military convoy. It was Flag Day, and Memo had invited the military to participate in a street parade. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today.” 

Farías pulls up and joins us under the tree. One of the original conspirators, Farías fills in the story of the movement’s origins. 

“Eight days before Feb. 24, 2014, we held a secret meeting. Five families from Tepec, plus Hipólito Mora’s family. Each family was represented by, say, three members. We had been talking about it for two or three months. But that’s when we planned everything for the big day. We were scared. In Aguililla [a town 70 miles to the south] eight bodies had been found. In Jalisco more bodies had been found. I sent my family into hiding at neighboring ranches. My wife asked me, ‘And if we fail?’ ‘Go to the States,’ I told her. ‘All is lost here.’”

The odds were against the early conspirators, and the stakes were high. The regional Templars counted over a hundred gunmen and a cast of falcons, and failure meant a grisly death not unlike that of Mora’s alleged victims: torture, shooting, and incineration.

“We felt as if it were a conspiracy. We felt like what Morelos and his band must have felt like at the start of their conspiracy.”

Farías alludes to the parish priest of Carácuaro, Michoacán, who, in 1810, soon after Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla called for armed revolt against the Spanish colonial authorities, made his way to the rebel army to meet Hidalgo. The independence war leader made Morelos a lieutenant and ordered him to raise troops in the south and march on Acapulco. Morelos led the revolutionary movement after Hidalgo’s execution until he, too, faced the firing squad in 1815, six years before Mexico gained independence. 

“We had no idea that it would grow into a movement and spread across Michoacán. We were just thinking how not to die. Boy, did we get drunk that night!

“Had I known that “Chucho” Reyna [the former interim governor arrested March 4, 2014, for ties to organized crime] and the whole government structure were involved, I would’ve left for the States. We never imagined that, say, 40 percent of the mayors in Michoacán were corrupt, or we never would’ve begun the revolt. We didn’t know what we were up against.”

To this day, both Farías and Arturo, who fears to give his real name, are afraid to travel outside of Tepec because of all the perdonados (pardoned gangsters) roaming free. 

“I know I am on a list,” Farías says. 

That list is long: an armed group just massacred one vigilante-turned-Rurale, along with his wife and three children, at their home on the outskirts of Tepalcatepec June 18, 2014.

Farías blames political and economic abandonment nationwide for the rise of the Templars and illustrates his theory with a concrete example. In the 1980’s, the government shut down the Rural Bank, he tells me. Start-up loans for small businesses -- already obstructed by red tape -- were no longer available to the working poor, many of whom turned to crime.  

“If the Rural Bank hadn’t closed, there would have been no Templars and no autodefensas.  That’s my opinion.”  

The national food program that President Enrique Peña Nieto is expanding into Michoacán, Farías calls a “mamada” (teat-nursing). 

“Instead of giving people fish, the government should teach them how to fish. They should give a family, say, four kid goats so they can sell milk and raise their own livestock.”  

An entrepreneur himself, Farías is in talks with a statewide business to found a local cheese factory that will employ hundreds.  

“The government could be helping me with the equipment, the technical expertise, the distribution network.  Instead, we have to do it all by ourselves.” 

Such is the sentiment that has animated the autodefensa movement all along.

July 1, 2014 - However dubious his methods, Farías has earned a hero’s place in the movement’s history, even if his deliberately low profile means that his fame will travel no farther than his hometown. Valencia’s exile in Morelia remains sealed in Tepec. His political career promises no phoenix-like resurrection so long as the autodefensas enjoy the use of memory. Word on the street has it that he recently fled the country for the United States. Just to have held office during the Templars’ reign renders one suspect, so many politicians did the gangsters corrupt. The courts are now crammed with officials in handcuffs, like the ex-mayor of Parácuaro, arrested June 16, 2014, for embezzlement.

With powerful backers and a lawyer like Quintero, it comes as no surprise that Mora was released from prison May 16, 2014, for lack of evidence. The month prior, Mora had sent messages to the autodefensas urging them not to disarm and to continue the advance. He now says he will register his weapons and work with the state Rurales. A behind-the-scenes agreement appears to have been made. But his many hometown enemies do not forgive so easily. Feeling unsafe in La Ruana, he has moved with his family to the state capital.

Back in Apatzingán, Estanislao Beltrán proudly wears the navy blue uniform of the State Rural Police while presiding over the successful transition -- “for the first time in the world,” one federal envoy proudly, and justifiably, proclaimed -- of a vigilante movement into a state security force. But while progress is being made, there’s still a ways to go. With 76 (of the state’s 113) municipalities in which the Templars continue their crimes in the absence of self-defense groups, Beltrán’s beard, which he swore not to cut until the gangsters were eliminated from the state, will continue to grow.

The thousands of civilians who rose up to challenge the Templars’ sway -- and in 16 months not only expelled the gangsters from over a fourth of Michoacán but helped bring down thousands of corrupt officials from city councilmen and municipal police on up to the heads of state government -- will continue their quest to purge their communities of organized crime. But they serve new masters now: the State Public Safety Secretariat. 

Time will tell if the institutionalization of the vigilantes will lead to the greater cooperation between state and civil society that Mexico needs if it is to win the Drug War, or if it will prove an act of cooptation by a state too corrupt or inept to accompany its repressive measures with the necessary dismantling of the political and financial structures that sustain organized crime. 

Until then: “The war against organized crime in Michoacán has not finished,” as one movement leader, José Manuel Mireles, declared in the press May 27, 2014. “Nor has the rule of law been reestablished.” 

But the machine set in motion by the vigilantes continues to steamroll. On June 18, 2014, Governor Fausto Vallejo stepped down pleading health reasons, even as his resignation comes three days after a photo leaked on the Internet showing his son meeting with Templar boss Servando Gómez Martínez a.k.a. La Tuta (The Teacher), who remains at large. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating criminal charges.

As for the self-defense movement’s legacy, “I see it as a torch that can spread throughout Mexico,” Farías offers. 

It will, if Mireles has his way. Together with Mora, this vigilante torch-bearer—who has always disavowed government authority—recently held a congress with high-profile clergymen, politicians and civil rights activists in Mexico City. The aim is to create a national movement of “autodefensas” without arms, even if the precise objectives remain unclear. Civil society in Mexico grows, even as organized crime still flourishes. 

February 27, 2015 — The Templars’ four-year reign as chief syndicate of Michoacán has officially come to an end, with Mexican authorities reporting the capture of La Tuta in Morelia today.  Yet even now remnants of the cartel are reorganizing into new gangs, such as Los Viagra (The Viagras) and Tercera Hermandad (Third Brotherhood), and contending for dominion of the crime world, so that coronation of the next kingpin is only a matter of time.

Please see Part I and Part II of Tierra Caliente Aflame series.

John Pedro Schwartz is a writer, journalist, and academic specializing in British, American and Ibero-American modernist literature.  He has published scholarly articles on James Joyce, Henry James and Fernando Pessoa, as well as on the interstices of composition and media studies. He has a forthcoming article on the figure of the museum in Jorge Luis Borges. He is co-editor of both Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World (Routledge) and TransLatin Joyce: Global Transmissions in Ibero-American Literature (Palgrave). While working as an assistant professor of English at American University of Beirut (2006-2013), he freelanced for Foreign Policy, filing a comprehensive report on the Syrian civil war. He is currently at work on a memoir of his years in Beirut.

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