John Pedro Schwartz

The first installment of a three-part investigative series. Photographs by Nathaniel Parish Flannery.

Vigilantes versus the Knights Templar

April 13, 2014 — It’s Easter season here in Michoacán, time for heads to roll in this west-central Mexican state. Not in the way that the Michoacán Family drug cartel burst onto the scene in 2006, throwing five severed heads onto a discotheque dance floor. But in the way that the federal government periodically announces its renewed seriousness about ending organized crime: by arresting a string of state and municipal officials for corruption at a time when the populace is distracted by fiestas and fireworks. 
“Damage control,” former Guadalajara congressman Alejandro Villaseñor calls it. “Old Mexican custom.”

To vary the metaphor, just as locals in the Michoacán colonial town of Pátzcuaro carry Christ’s effigy through the cobblestone streets every Lenten Friday in testament of their faith, so the federal government is parading their latest arrests as proof of their determination to dismantle the criminal network that has infiltrated all levels of government here.

“The limpia [cleaning-out] has to be total, let fall who fall,” declared Alfredo Castillo, the federal Commissioner for the Safety of Michoacán, after the April 4, 2014 arrest of former interim governor Jesús Reyna for ties to organized crime. He has promised scores more arrests to come. Weekly headlines reporting yet another state or municipal official’s fall from grace seem to bear out the commissioner’s promise.  But the feeling is rife that whole echelons of power continue to enjoy impunity. At the top of this entrenched pyramid stands Governor Fausto Vallejo, widely derided by the public as a dinosaur—his nickname on the street is “Faustosaurio”—rendered extinct by the arrest of Reyna, his secretary of government.

Swaying the skeptics is essential, not least because they include some 10,000 hardened, gun-toting vigilantes whom federal authorities have long tried to regulate, and only lately have begun trying to disarm. Like the limpia of corrupt officials, the disarmament drive forms the latest installment in the government’s eight-year campaign to restore order to Michoacán. Without a credible government plan to fill the void, however, the vigilantes are unlikely to lay down their arms. 

Michoacán’s slide toward chaos began at least as early as 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón first sent military troops to his home state to quell the violence between the Zetas drug cartel and their eventually victorious rivals, the Michoacán Family. In 2011, the Knights Templar broke away from the Michoacán Family to form their own criminal organization, specializing in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and the illegal methamphetamine trade. Whereas many cartels celebrate their refusal to engage in extortion to maintain the pretense that they are merely businessmen, the Templars devoted themselves to exacting cuotas de piso -- literally, floor dues -- on a state-wide, industrial scale. 

A sampling of crime in towns across Michoacán illustrates how dire the situation rapidly became.  “We had to pay 2,500 pesos per cow at the slaughterhouse,” complained a butcher in La Ruana. A lime grower in Apatzingán told how he was forced to sell his cut-rate produce directly to the criminals, who then sold it at a profit to distributors. A Pátzcuaro motel clerk informed that the gang usually calls hotels in December to demand extortion money. Vigilante chiefs charged that the mayor of that lakeside town regularly forked over the cuota de obras (construction dues), amounting to 10 percent of government outlays on public works. The Templars extracted iron ore illegally from Tierra Caliente and exported it to China, claimed a mineral transporter from Tepalcatepec. Often the criminals demanded a literal pound of flesh, whether abducting local children and harvesting their organs for trafficking purposes or kidnapping pre-teen girls and raping them at weekend parties, according to press reports. While they did not pioneer mass graves among Mexico’s cartels, the Templars certainly dug their share, with 20 corpses found outside a ranch in Tingüindín on February 5, 2014.

In February 2013, groups of ranchers, farm-workers, and businessmen in Tierra Caliente, fed up with the extortion, rape, and murder, rose up to rid their towns of the Templars’ influence. The “self-defense” groups were local, secretive, and largely autonomous, but as they proliferated across the region, they lent mutual assistance and developed organizational ties. Armed with hunting and sports rifles, machetes, and farm tools, the civilians faced dire odds in their battle against the thousands-strong, state-wide cartel, which bristled with AK-47s, .50 caliber machine guns, and the occasional RPG. But they went on that year to reclaim some nine municipalities controlled by the Templars, helping to make Michoacán the second most violent state in Mexico, with 2,646 homicides in 2013.

A vigilante with the autodefensas stands watch after a raid to liberate a village from the Knights Templar cartel.

The bloodshed climaxed at the start of this year, even as the tide of battle turned, with the vigilantes capturing a string of towns in the Templars’ heartland. According to government statistics, the state’s homicide index in January and February 2014 grew 82 percent in comparison with the same period last year, which totaled 97 homicides. Also, in the first two months of this year, Michoacán moved from second to first place in kidnappings per state. The almost daily clashes between vigilantes and Templars spurred the uptick in violence, while the spate of kidnappings reflects both the peaking of the gangsters’ power and their desperation in the face of a rising threat. A thousand widows, 3,000 displaced persons, and more than 5,000 orphans left in the past three years give further evidence of a deterioration in security not seen in Michoacán since the Mexican revolution at the start of the 20th century.

In January of this year, the skyrocketing body count, the fresh run of vigilante victories, and the spectacle of thousands of armed civilians led by a physician-turned-vigilante named José Manuel Mireles, finally vaulted this backwater Mexican state into the international headlines. Mexican President Peña Nieto responded by dispatching a fresh batch of federal troops to reassert authority over what had become a fragmented collection of fiefdoms, disputed by the Templars and the self-defense groups dedicated to their extermination.  

Additional measures promised to impose order on the growing anarchy. On January 27, 2014, the federal and state governments signed an accord with the vigilantes integrating them into the Rural Defense Corps, a longstanding volunteer force that offers local assistance to national troops -- a prelude to the current disarmament push. Vigilantes who registered their names and weapons -- limited to one handgun and one rifle -- in the following weeks would enjoy legal status as armed corpsmen. But no more than a few hundred vigilantes took up the government on this lame offer. The Mexico City government pledged to invest $3.4 billion to build roads, schools, and other infrastructure in the state. The federal aid package also involved expanding the National Crusade Against Hunger, a year-old program offering three-peso meals to needy people, into new areas of Michoacán. 

But even institutionalized in the corps, the vigilantes continued to pose a threat to the political order. The self-defense groups still control over a fourth of the state, and the credibility of the ruling PRI party is crumbling as a result. With elections for governor less than a year away, the federal government is trying to put the vigilantes out of business. On April 5, 2014, the Navy arrested 40 of their men for bearing unauthorized arms and transferred them to a military prison. In response, thousands of group members demonstrated at town entrances across the state, denying passage to military troops and federal, state, and local police. Protest banners declared in part: “The government still can’t guarantee security.... No to disarmament. Federal forces, get out.”

Since their uprising, the self-defense groups have maintained that they will not disarm until they have rid the state of organized crime. The government has argued that the groups are no longer needed because security forces have killed or captured three of the four Templar bosses. An accord was finally reached on April 14 that splits the difference. The government extended the deadline for armed citizens to register their guns and offered them a bigger carrot than membership in the unpaid Rural Defense Corps. Those who complied with the government offer could join the State Rural Police, a newly created force charged with carrying out police functions in rural zones and small towns. The permanent position would carry a monthly salary of 8,000 pesos, along with health and housing benefits. After May 10, 2014, anyone carrying illegal weapons would face arrest. 

Around two thousand men have since enlisted in the gendarmeries. Almost as many have failed the prerequisite medical, toxicological, and psychological exams.  The rest have handed over their weapons or, more likely, reburied them for future use. Guns under law may be the name of the game, but no gun in Tierra Caliente goes holstered or inhumed for long, and few get surrendered to a state that commands no trust among the people and collects only scorn from their self-styled defenders. State impotence -- or indifference -- to organized crime and associated corruption has too long a history, and as the populace, the vigilantes, and the Templars have all discovered, security flows from the barrel of a gun. 

Joint security operations with federal troops, which have deployed to roughly the same 37 of the state’s 113 municipalities held by the self-defense groups, have continued. As recently as April 27, 2014, the two parties teamed up to take control of Lázaro Cárdenas, home to Mexico’s largest seaport and a transit point for incoming chemicals needed to produce crystal meth, or methamphetamine, and outgoing illegally mined iron ore. Security forces arrested the mayor on charges of kidnapping, extortion, and links to organized crime. Next in their combined sights are Templar remnants and their government cronies in the municipalities of Zamora, Uruapan, and Morelia, the state capital. Eventually, all Michoacán will know the presence of the self-defense groups reorganized under state command. Such is the stated ambition of the newly uniformed vigilante chiefs, an ambition seconded, in principle, by federal officials not known for their follow-through.

But even as self-defense groups join the institutional fold and malfeasants face hard time, the political, logistic, and financial structures that undergird organized crime in Michoacán -- indeed, across Mexico -- remain intact. The federal envoy’s metaphor of cleaning out the government -- limpia, the same metaphor the vigilantes use for their fight against the Templars -- hints at the limits of a law-enforcement and court-sentencing solution that critics lambast as cosmetic and, worse, cyclical. Cleaning, after all, is a periodic enterprise.    

And so a vicious cycle prevails. The Knights Templar rose from the ashes of the Michoacán Family. The latest deployment of several thousand troops repeats the 2006 Operation Michoacán launched by Calderón. The campaign was the first stage of the Mexican Drug War, which has cost some 85,000 lives and shows few signs of abating as it enters its eighth year. Authorities just found more than 30 bodies in a mass grave in the eastern state of Veracruz June 19, 2014.

Since taking power on Dec. 1, 2012, Peña Nieto has continued his predecessor’s overall policy of using the military and federal police to combat organize crime, with similarly discouraging results. The independent media outlet Semanario Zeta reports 83,000 murders related to organized crime under Calderón’s presidency and 13,775 in the first six months of Peña Nieto’s administration. At this rate, by the end of his tenure, the rate of homicide related to organized crime will have exceeded by almost 50 percent the number of murders registered under his predecessor. Different statistics tell a similar story. According to preliminary numbers from the National Public Security System, lethal violence in Mexico declined in the first year of the Peña Nieto presidency. From a monthly average of more than 1,800 intentional homicides during the last year of the Calderón administration, the national figure dropped to 1,550 in 2013, a decline of roughly 15 percent. But while the murder rate has fallen, those of kidnapping and extortion have gone in the opposite direction, continuing an unfortunate tendency dating back years. The distribution of gang warfare has also shifted in the past year and a half, from the northern to the southwestern region, with Michoacán as the state with arguably the most alarming security crisis. 

The emergence of autodefensas, as the self-defense groups are known, has exposed not only the inadequacy of the state’s heavily militarized and judicial approach, but also its failure to achieve even the limited goal of neutralizing the cartels’ armed operations. Citizens took up arms because they considered the police (together with politicians) corrupt, the justice system broken, and the military ineffective. By assuming state duties, they exposed the state vacuums that academics have analyzed in arguing for a paradigm shift from punitive measures to radical structural reform.

On the one hand, the self-defense groups further weaken the rule of law by operating outside the state. On the other, as a grassroots movement with popular support, they demonstrate the muscle of an otherwise passive civil society tortured into action. “We united to defend our towns,” vigilantes regularly stress.  In fact, the policia comunitaria (community police), as they are also known, grew out of the existing, regional Association of Lemon Producers, Ranchers, and Businessmen. Their integration into the Rural Defense Corps and the State Rural Police, albeit incomplete, exemplifies the kind of cooperation between state and civil society that has rarely occurred in the past.

At every turn, the community police invoke the will of the pueblo (folk, town, or community).  “If the people don’t support us, we’ll leave here tomorrow,” runs a common refrain among the autodefensas, who owe their allegiance to the populace, not to the government. Admittedly, this mantra was hollowed by the Michoacán Family, which at its inception took out ads in local newspapers announcing its aim of defending the people from other cartels’ predations. “Our mission is to eradicate kidnapping, direct and telephonic extortion, assassinations for hire, robbery,” ran one 2006 ad. 

The government’s twin anti-corruption and disarmament drives hardly amount to a radical overhaul its repressive strategy against organized crime and political collusion. But they could signal a shift toward greater respect for, and partnership with, civil society, even as citizens gain confidence at forming communities linked by common interests and collective activity.

“Mexico is changing,” Villaseñor explains.  “The days when you could get a position or a favor because you were the son of so-and-so are over.”  

Whether the civilians’ armed uprising and their forcing of the government’s hand reflect a transition from a political and economic structure based on class ties and patronage to one rooted in merit, mobility, and civic initiative remains to be seen. But a first-hand look at the tensions in Tierra Caliente offers a glimpse into the social and material challenges facing the government -- challenges that led to the rise of both the vigilantes and the crime syndicate they have pledged to destroy. 

Two autodefensa members pose near a tomb dedicated to the deceased Knights Templar leader Nazario "the Craziest One" Moreno.

March 22, 2014 — Tierra Caliente is a culturally and geographically distinct region comprising 11 of the 113 municipalities of the state of Michoacán. It is rich in agriculture, mining, ranching, organized crime, and lately, vigilantism. Until recently, it was the home base of the Knights Templar. 

With 100,000 inhabitants, Apatzingán is the region’s largest city. A covered market shields downtown pedestrians from the scorching sun. By night, an Art Deco cathedral, its austere façade lit all the way up to the iron cross astride its three-story tower, brightens the plaza, even as surrounding streets remain mired in darkness. Lime, papaya, grapefruit, and star fruit teem in the orchard fields. Templar capo still at large Servando Gómez Martínez, a.k.a. La Tuta (The Teacher) molded young minds here—hence his nickname—before opting to sever heads. When federal troops arrived in mid-January, local criminals threatened to set fire to both market and cathedral. The city was the epicenter of Templar activity until the vigilantes, assisted by security forces, took it March 3, 2014, after a month of repeated attempts.  It has remained under autodefensa control, even as clashes still occur, such as the one May 27, 2014, that resulted in one arrest.13

Every weekday morning at the local lime bazaar, where producers meet buyers and boxes of limes get loaded onto the beds of trucks bound for greater Mexico, a short, bespectacled, paunch-bellied man can be seen milling among a dozen armed men and alternating between a walkie-talkie and a mobile phone. His name is Estanislao Beltrán, a.k.a. Papá Pitufo (Papa Smurf), and he is a founding leader of the autodefensas. 

With his long gray beard, Beltrán would resemble his nickname -- if Papa Smurf were swarthy instead of blue, and wore a baseball cap instead of a smock, and spoke Spanish with a rustic cadence instead of a squeaky televised dub. Into the day’s juggling act -- planning and logistics, communications, a meeting of the vigilantes’ top brass -- he slips the story of the autodefensas.

“The principal objective of our movement was always organized crime. We in Michoacán have lived 12 years of sadness, of injustice, where organized crime joined forces with the state. First there were the Zetas [in 2001], then came the Michoacán Family, who took over from the Zetas [in 2006]. But they dedicated themselves to drug trafficking; they did not harm the people much.  Then when the family divided and the Knights Templar emerged [in 2010-2012], they dedicated themselves fully to extortion, kidnapping, anything that generated money.” 

Templar greed is notorious in the region. As a Buenavista motel manager put it to me, Calderón’s launching of the 2006 Operation Michoacán “put an end to the drug trade. So the Templars made most of their money through extortion.” The first claim is exaggerated, the second one true. After citing their widespread extortion, murder, and rape, he illustrated his larger point with a quote from recently captured Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “El Chapo was asked about The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. ‘They are my enemies but they are caballeros (gentlemen),’ he said. Asked about the Caballeros Templarios, he said, ‘They are filthy thieves.’” 

Estanislao Beltrán, a.k.a. Papá Pitufo (Papa Smurf), prepares to lead a convoy of autodefensas to seize control of the town of Santa Clara in Michoacán.

The Templar thieves built a massive organization that eventually penetrated all levels of government here, according to Beltrán. “They were the owners of Michoacán in every sense, whether speaking of agriculture, of livestock, of industry, of businesses, everything, everything, everything. They presided over the livestock associations, they installed the mayors, they were involved in the government, the public ministries. The police in each one of the 113 municipalities of Michoacán were the armed wing of the Knights Templar. They were the ones who would kidnap, they were the ones who would murder -- the municipal police.”

The municipal police were the first people to get run out of town once self-defense groups made their entrance. Most simply abandoned their posts when the autodefensas arrived at City Hall. Some are indeed corrupt: In early April, a number of Templars, including five police officers from Uruapan, were arrested after attacking a barricade outside of town. But now all municipal police are under suspicion, and none has a job left to do once responsibility for security transfers hands. State authorities recently announced the dismissal of 1,000 municipal police; the rest will be retained.

“The Templars disappeared us in Apatzingán, they disappeared a councilor in Buenavista, they disappeared friends and relatives,” says Beltrán. “And the state government never concerned itself with it. We would always protest, and Jesús Reyna [the former interim governor] would come out and say, ‘In Michoacán, nothing’s happening. In Michoacán, everything is peaceful,’ when we had three or four daily confrontations with organized crime.”

Government indifference to Templar atrocities is a common theme among the self-defense groups. Unarmed civilians echo the complaint, as do local politicians like Guillermo Valencia, ex-mayor of Tepalcatepec, who called futilely on the governor to send security forces to defend him against his eventual violent ouster in April 2103. 

Beltrán resumes: “So, tired of living like this and willing to die to defend our community and our families, we decided to organize and confront the armed monster -- the artillery monster -- that was the Knights Templar. When the struggle started, they thought nothing of us. They said, ‘For us they don’t count, because in three hours we’ll kill them all.’  But they didn’t recognize there was Estanislao. They didn’t recognize there was Dr. Mireles, nor Hipólito. They didn’t recognize it was the people, tired of injustice, who were demonstrating against them and who were willing to give their lives.”

Like Mireles, Hipólito Mora is a founding leader of the self-defense groups -- or was until he was arrested March 11, 2014, for the murder of two rival self-defense group members.  

“So it got more complicated for them. In the beginning, we didn’t have arms. We began with shotguns and with .22s and with a pistol we had in a safe at home. And what happened? We went willing to die, we went willing to defend our people, we went willing not to return. And that’s how we lived for months. And we received attacks, ta-ta-ta, all of a sudden, in the morning, always in the morning. But what was their surprise? That we with courage were always there, giving battle at the barricades, defending ourselves from attacks.”
Beltrán’s triumphalist narrative continues.  “And we killed. They fell and ran. We, not one step backward. They wouldn’t get us out of there unless they got us out of there dead. And some of those who fled threw away their radios, threw away dischargers, threw away rifles. That’s how we started arming ourselves.  That’s how we started. Recovering arms, recovering ammunition. We’d arrive at their safe houses. We found trucks, we found ammunition, we found rifles, and we started advancing, advancing, advancing, such that we succeeded until now in debilitating the Knights Templar by 80 percent.” 

Here, Beltrán exaggerates: while most of the leadership has been decimated, the lower and middle tiers of the Templar cartel remain largely intact in the 76 municipalities in which the self-defense groups do not yet have a presence. For example, on June 5, 2014, in the Lake Region town of Erongarícuaro, a political party chief was assassinated by at least 20 gunshots after masked men armed with assault rifles abducted him from his shoe repair shop at midday.

What’s clear is that the autodefensas are ascendant. Where they get their money and materiel remains a mystery, one that’s generating more speculation now that they’ve acquired a fleet of shiny new trucks, SUVs, Hummers, and Jeeps, along with an arsenal of cuernos de chivo, the Mexican slang term for AK-47s, whose literal meaning is “goat’s horn,” a reference to the weapon’s signature curved magazine clip. 

“Follow the money,” one Pátzcuaro painter told me. “They say they pay them well,” voiced a motel clerk from the same town. People throughout the state suspect the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel of trying to impose itself in Michoacán by equipping the autodefensas against the enemy Templars. Questions have also been raised about the possession by some vigilantes of high-caliber weapons, which are reserved for the exclusive use of the army, and which the government accord required the groups to hand over by May 10, 2014, or face arrest. But autodefensas insist that the groups’ weapons and vehicles were captured from fleeing Templars. And donations are known to have poured in from vigilante supporters in Mexico and the United States.

“Now, if you look, everything is calm,” says Beltrán. “Here everyone dedicates himself to normal activities.  Economic activity has picked up. Peace is returning to the people. Here the city of Apatzingán was a ghost town [before the autodefensas drove out the Templars]. The Templars would suddenly say, ‘We want five employees from every business to protest against the self-defense forces. Send the five or we’ll burn down your business.’ And some who did not send employees, they burnt their businesses. They were forced to go. That’s how it happened.”

An armed convoy led by Beltrán makes its way from Los Reyes to Santa Clara in Michoacán.

Apatzingán and the other 35 municipalities under autodefensa sway are indeed calm today. Even so, economic activity across the state has not revived to pre-vigilante-era levels, judging by the weak Easter tourism. Artisans, vendors, restaurateurs, and hotel keepers in tourist towns outside of Tierra Caliente, like Uruapan and Pátzcuaro, blame their ebbing business on “the crisis” and look unkindly on the autodefensas, whose armed patrols scare away tourists, they say. 

But the vigilantes say they are filling a critical void. “We always asked the government to support us because we were doing the work that the government couldn’t do for the whole time,” says Beltrán. “And all the government colluded, the public ministers. If the Templars had kidnapped my brother and killed him, and I were to have gone to complain to the public minister, he would have told the Templars that so-and-so came to complain and he’s going to come back here tomorrow -- grab him and kill him. That’s how the heads of the people appeared. Me, they still threaten me. La Tuta calls me and says, ‘You’ve exhausted me.... I’ve located you and your family. I’m going to kill you, I’m going to finish you all off.’ I tell him, ‘Well, I’m looking for you, come. I’m here in Apatzingán. Come, I’m looking for you. I’m not going to run, like you, cowards.’ They kill tied-up people. That’s what they’re good for, to kill tied-up people. They come, 10 or 20 cabrones, and they kidnap harmless people, unarmed people.”

The autodefensas enlisted in the Rural Defense Corps and the State Rural Police now answer to the State Public Safety Secretariat, even as chiefs like Beltrán retain their positions under the new dispensation. The citizen committees that once mediated vigilante relations with the community remain to monitor the integrity of the newly deputed. The idea behind the two militarized bodies under civilian control is that they can be more effective in fighting crime if members are drawn from the local populace, since they know their bad apples best and enjoy the community’s trust. Thus, unlike the region’s existing security forces, the gendarmeries will be stationed in their hamlets and hometowns. 
“So that’s how this movement grew to its present state, surely with errors. We have always taken care that the principal objective is to finish with organized crime in the 113 municipalities of the state of Michoacán. We have no other objective. We are not going to remove or install anyone, nor are we going to say what the people are going to do. The people in a general assembly are going to name their civilian council. They are going to make their agenda. We only orient. We don’t get involved in politics or in religion or in anything. We respect. We go with one only objective, that’s all.”

If Beltrán protests the innocence of vigilante aims, it’s because he knows all too well the criticism that the movement has aroused among the politicians, the media, and the community. “And we know that there can be negative results. But we are very alert, and we’re saying to the towns that we will not allow anyone to come and give orders or be the owner of the town. We are not going to allow that. Because we want to finish our struggle the way it started. We started with one problem. Now we’re here, we’re starting to decrease. Whatever group, whatever person, that strays outside the bounds, it’s important to prosecute him.”

This is where Beltrán’s heroic narrative betrays fault-lines. Mora’s arrest fueled suspicion that some autodefensas were really Templars who tacked with the wind, Jalisco gangsters muscling in on their neighbor, or free agents corrupted by their growing power -- a suspicion fed by news reports that some of the founding leaders had previous arrests for drug trafficking, in both Mexico and the United States. 

Then there is the case of Tepalcatepec mayor Guillermo Valencia, who was driven into exile by vigilantes grouped around Uriel Farías Álvarez, a local strongman who charged the politician with ties to organized crime, even as he himself spent almost a year in prison for suspected drug trafficking. Meanwhile, 17 “pseudo-autodefensas” from Yurécuaro are currently imprisoned on charges of murdering the mayor of Tanhuato last month -- just one of several examples of gangsters posing as community police.

Beltrán is highly aware of the murky line between vigilantism and organized crime but stresses, if not the purity of all autodefensas, then the purity of their aim. “May it not have a bad ending, this struggle,” he says. “That everything remain peaceful. That we return to our normal activities. We don’t want any more punishment for the state of Michoacán. That’s the objective.”

Read Part II in the series here.

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.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Latin America-focused analyst and writer. He splits his time between New York City and Mexico City, and has written feature articles on business, organized crime, politics, and culture for The Atlantic, MONOCLE, Americas Quarterly, The Nation, Lapham's Quarterly and a number of other publications. He has worked extensively along Mexico's northern border as well as in the hills of places like Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guerrero. He has a Master's degree in International Affairs from Columbia University (SIPA).