The second installment of a three-part investigative series. Photographs by Nathaniel Parish Flannery.
On the Road with the Vigilantes...
March 22, 2014 — The truck is from Texas, but the swagger is all Mexican. It’s a late-model Ford super cab pickup, gleaming white in the parking lot outside the Apatzingán lime bazaar in Mexico’s west-central Michoacán state. The decal on the body reads:
Civilian Self-Defense Group
Association of Lime Producers, Ranchers, and Businessmen
5 Patrol #5
For a Free Michoacán
“That’s mine,” says Jiro, a 200-pound 20-something with a bull neck and a baby face, nodding in the direction of the Ford. Jiro heads an 8-10-member cell within Group 5, one of the dozen or so autodefensa, or “self-defense,” groups based in and around Apatzingán.
The groups form part of the Michoacán self-defense forces that 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 Templars had spread their tentacles to all sectors of the state economy—construction, agriculture, ranching, mining, small commerce—exacting cuotas (dues) on an unprecedented scale. The extortion got so bad that, as one Pátzcuaro native told me, “You couldn’t even organize a baile (dance) without having to pay for a permit.” Whole tiers of the political structure, reaching up to the governor’s office, colluded with the gangsters, and many municipal and state police were in cahoots, looking the other way or carrying out the killings themselves.
The self-defense groups, mostly comprised of local farmers and ranchers, faced long odds at the start of their uprising in the Templars’ home region of Tierra Caliente. Armed with crude weapons and old rifles, the vigilantes were vastly outmanned and outgunned by the thousands-strong, state-wide cartel, which bristled with AK-47s, .50 caliber machine guns, and the occasional RPG. But they went on in their first 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. They have since swelled to number in the thousands and extended their sway to 37 of the state’s 113 municipalities. But the battle with the gangsters is not the vigilantes’ only fight. They also face the twin challenge of legalizing their status with the state and maintaining the trust of the community, both of whom are waxing wary of their growing strength.
Shifting his girth, enhanced by a breakfast of cheese-stuffed roasted poblano peppers over a bed of spaghettoni, Jiro pulls out a wad of 500-peso bills and tosses it on the table.
“You keep all your money in your pocket?” I ask.
“Why give my money to someone else to keep when I can keep it myself?”
Adjusting his heft, Jiro draws from his waistband a 9mm pistol with a hardwood grip, chrome finish, and heavily engraved slide and frame and lays it on the table.
It’s time to move, so we saddle into the truck. We’re headed to the nearby municipality of Parácuaro, which the autodefensas took from the Templars January 4, 2014. The plan is to hook up with a local self-defense group for a town hall meeting that Comandante Cinco -- the generic name that the Group 5 commander prefers in order to keep safely anonymous -- will preside over later today. Two AK-47s poke out in front; the back seat is covered in cartridge belts, a bullet-proof helmet, and a semi-automatic rifle. The guns, ammo, and truck were all repossessed from the Templars, Jiro tells me. A Dodge pickup and two SUVs, similarly impounded, ride ahead. Ranchera music plays full blast as we roll past mango orchards on an asphalt highway through the red valley of the tropic zone. Twenty green kilometers later, a banner over the town entrance reads:
Welcome to Parácuaro
Land of Artists and Illustrious Men
We park on the side of the square, appropriately known as the Plaza de Armas, and fan out in the cool of the arcade with a half-dozen other young gunslingers from various Group 5 cells. It’s the only safe place, since the heat is more of a killer than the Templars now. The meridian sun sets the plaza ablaze, bathing the palm trees, gazebo, stone fountain, and magenta spills of bougainvillea in a blinding light. Somewhere near, I’m told, there are cold springs and waterfalls where the locals take beer and go swimming and lie down in the shade of sapodilla trees.
Amid the peremptory sharing of potato chips and cigarettes, discussion turns to the recent death of narco kingpin Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Chayo, whose nickname is a play on the Spanish word for rosary. Moreno, who founded the Michoacán Family drug cartel in 2006 before starting up the Knights Templar in 2010-2012, has achieved almost the same level of notoriety in death as he did in life. He was first declared dead by the Mexican government in December 2010, after a shootout with federal police, even though no corpse was found. Authorities then declared him really dead March 9, 2014, when a squad of Mexican Army and Navy troops intercepted Moreno in Tumbiscatío, southern Michoacán, after a tip-off by locals. According to official reports, he was riding a mule in the mountains near a hut he used as hideout; when the troops tried to arrest him, the drug lord opened fire and was killed.
Tierra Caliente locals tell a different story. Says one vigilante: “I heard El Chayo went into hiding in the mountains with his men because he knew the authorities were closing in on him. His men knew that the game was over, so they shot him and strapped him to a mule, then called the police. And the police took the credit.”
I tell the men strung out against the arcade wall that I heard it from a journalist in the state capital of Morelia, who had it from some university students, who got it from their family and friends in Tumbiscatío, that El Chayo and fellow Templar chief La Tuta quarreled, and El Chayo fled to the Black Mountain with an escort of 20 men. He got high on drugs that night and accused one of his bodyguards of being a whistleblower and shot him. The other men didn’t like it. They tied him to the tail of a mule and smacked the mule, then called the police to pick up the body. You can see in the photos that his face is all battered and swollen like he’d been dragged. At least that’s what the journalist told me, I say.
“No, his face was swollen because they beat him up. The back of his shirt wasn’t torn, so they couldn’t have tied him to the mule,” says another vigilante. The warmer the air, the faster sound waves travel in it. Tierra Caliente scalds. Rumors fly.
Word gets around, in part, because the death of Nazario is the biggest thing going in these parts. As the name suggests, the Knights Templar are inspired by the Jerusalem-based crusaders who fought in the name of Christ between 1119 and 1312 A.D. El Chayo was the vessel for that inspiration. The spiritual leader of the gang even wrote his own bible of religious ramblings -- 90 percent Christian piety, 10 percent death-cult heresy -- which his followers often carried into battle. The exaggerated report of his death in 2010 only added to his legend, with the faithful whispering he was still alive and building shrines so they could adore his image as if it were that of a saint. Rumors about El Chayo confirm the appropriateness of his other nickname, “El Más Loco” (The Craziest One), which he gave himself, but also explain his enormous popularity, which on several occasions led the inhabitants of Tierra Caliente to lead parades in his honor.
“El Chayo was a cannibal,” pipes one of the men, munching on potato chips. “He would lay a corpse out on a table and order his men to lean in and take a bite.”
Another vigilante, wearing a T-shirt blazoned with “For a Free Parácuaro,” adds: “A Templar we arrested told me that El Chayo once invited them to a feast. They all sat down to eat, and dinner was tamales of human flesh. ‘That’s what I’m serving,’ said El Chayo. ‘Now eat.’ The Templar ended up with a finger inside his tamale.”
The rumors are not far off. Cartel member Manuel Plancarte Gaspar was arrested March 17, 2014 on suspicion of killing children for the purpose of extracting and selling their organs. Plancarte told authorities that El Chayo made new recruits eat human hearts in an initiation rite. His statement fueled reports that organ trafficking gangs operated in Mexico, but an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office yielded no evidence of their existence. Accounts of El Chayo’s cannibalism, on the other hand, remain in full spate.
“Well, Chayo’s dead and El Kike’s nephew is captured. Who’s left?” I ask.
“El Kike and La Tuta,” one of the vigilantes replies. The second-highest ranking Templar, Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte Solis has since been shot dead by security forces, which occurred on March 30, 2014. Top leader Servando Gómez Martínez a.k.a. La Tuta (The Teacher) remains at large and is suspected to be hiding in the mountains above Arteaga, between Tierra Caliente and the Pacific coast.
While the autodefensas have succeeded in decapitating most of the leadership, 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.
Autodefensa gunmen rest at a checkpoint in Apatzingán. The foot soldiers tend to be day laborers, their captains farmers, ranchers and businessmen.
“We still need to clean up Lázaro Cárdenas, Uruapan, Zamora, Morelia,” four municipalities that remain under Templar control, another vigilante puts in. The autodefensas have since taken the outskirts of Lázaro Cárdenas.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing to do but hike our feet up against the arcade wall and carry on with that crude levity that kills time and breeds familiarity.
A chesty woman in a hot yellow tube top and platform shoes is spotted crossing the plaza. Jiro lets out a bovine lowing. The woman smiles and, glancing, gives back a heifer’s echo. Like most Tierra Caliente beauties, she takes wolf whistles and catcalls in stride. That her gentleman caller this time is an autodefensa makes no difference to her self-possession.
One’s ability to distinguish anatomy after draining a case of Corona is deliberated. When no consensus is reached, one of the men turns to me and asks if I’m married.
“No. I came here to find a quinceañera virgen.”
“Well, that’s going to be difficult to find these days,” he informs me.
Local women’s honor is probed.
“So you’ve come to Tierra Caliente to write a story on us? You’re not scared?” asks a comrade.
“Why should I be?”
“Now that Chayo’s dead, he’s the craziest one,” quips another, pointing at me.
“That’s right. Only I prefer to eat conchas.”
Mating habits are hashed over.
It’s time to eat. We make our way to the north side of the square and sit down to a round of chavindecas, melted cheese and fried meat between two tortillas. No sooner have we finished eating, than Jiro’s walkie-talkie crackles and we’re off again -- this time to join another Group 5 cell for a second lunch at a seafood joint just outside of town. Each group is charged with defending a different base or barricade in town—in this case, Base 5 in Apatzingán. Lunches are a time for cells to regroup as at a floating mess hall, or today, more like a moveable banquet.
Some dozen and a half of us sit down to shrimp, oyster, and octopus cocktails, Mexican fish soup, and shrimp platters garnished with slices of cucumber, avocado, and lime. Kneeling in the hot grass, a small boy makes stifled blurting sounds on a taped-up cornet. Whether he’s just young or soft in the head from too much sun is anybody’s guess. But when you’re shelling shrimp, it’s your own life you philosophize about.
“That’s the way it is, Pedro,” Jiro says, pudgy fingers plucking pleopoda. “Pure killing and eating.”
“No drinking or fucking?”
“Anyone want a beer? My treat,” Comandante Cinco calls out to the table of thirsty warriors. In fact, the whole spread is his treat. If the self-defense groups come by their hardware through cartel raids, their daily expenses are bankrolled by cell and group leaders like Jiro and Cinco. The foot soldiers tend to be day laborers; their captains are often farmers, ranchers, and businessmen who pay from their own pocket the money they would otherwise pay in extortion fees.
Back in the Plaza de Armas, a half-dozen of us spread out along a low border wall, waiting for the crowd to gather for the town hall meeting that Comandante Cinco will shortly address. An older auto, with a small lime field in Apatzingán, explains how the Templars extorted lime producers until the self-defense groups drove them out of town March 3, 2014.
“The Templars would go to the lime bazaar and force us to sell our limes to them at, say, 3 pesos a kilo instead of 6 pesos. Then they would sell them to the distributors for 10 pesos a kilo.” The distributors would then transport the limes across Mexico and sell them on to local markets at marked-up prices. In March 2014, a combination of factors--Templar extortion, the gangsters' blocking of roads to punish the community for rebelling against them, the dumping of limes by pickers protesting the persistence of low wages even after the autodefensas evicted the Templars--helped send Michoacán lime prices soaring to 55 pesos per kilo. The crisis spread across the country and into the United States, since bad weather in 2013 had destroyed alternative lime sources in Mexico and Michoacán farmers were quick to capitalize on the inverse proportion between supply and demand.
“Now that I don’t have to sell to the Templars, I’m making good money,” the lime grower adds with a smile.
Conversation turns to the subject of guns. One auto shows me his license to bear arms, recently issued by the Mexican Secretary of National Defense. The boxes for semi-automatic rifle and revolver are checked. With license in hand, he is on the safe side of the law requiring vigilantes to register their weapons and choose one of two options for integration. They can join 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 the gendarmeries. Almost as many have failed the prerequisite medical, toxicological, and psychological exams. The rest have handed over their weapons or buried them for future use.
Next he proudly shows me his ID card for the Association of Lime Producers, Ranchers, and Businessmen, the regional association in which the self-defense groups have their origins. As for the ID for the Rural Defense Corps he applied to join back in January 2014, he snorts and says that the government still hasn’t issued the cards to anybody. He adds that the corps, intended to bring the vigilantes into the government fold, is a farce.
Many autodefensas suspect that the new regulations form part of a government effort to check their increasingly powerful movement, preserve the political and economic structures of corruption, and end the embarrassment they’ve been causing the state. They see themselves as leading the limpia (cleaning-out) of criminals that Morelia officials have lately trumpeted as their own mission. The vigilantes are keen on cleaning their own house, as well. That’s partly why the Group 5 commander called this town gathering—not just to update locals on the latest developments and security needs but also to address head-on a spate of rumors that threaten to divide the town from its defenders. Community relations are nothing if not precarious in a lawless landscape.
Showtime. A few hundred of the municipality’s 25,000 inhabitants have gathered in the square. Cinco, tall, gangly, baseball-capped, and winged by his coadjutant, a man called Chavo, lopes onto a mounted stage at the far end of the plaza: “Buenas tardes, Parácuaro! Last night we arrested a Templar who had robbed 40 million pesos! And this past week we detained another 50 Templars and captured 21 weapons!”
Heavily armed vigilantes stand sentry after running Knights Templar gunmen out of a town in Michoacán.
Vigilantes after a raid. The government hopes to bring civilian gunmen into the fold of state-controlled rural police units.
After apprising the crowd of the vigilantes’ latest gains, Cinco stresses the need for the town’s citizens to work harder at manning the barricades, checking cars for weapons, and reporting drug laboratories (methamphetamines are the Templars’ leading drug export). “You must decide whether to keep your municipal police.” Cinco then launches into his main theme, a showdown with a rival in a power struggle. Upon taking control of a town, the autodefensas regularly establish a committee of 10-12 citizens to moderate disputes, recruit informants, staff the barricades, and purge the police. The commander’s rival is a member of the local committee.
“I am furious that here there is a person who filed a suit against me in D.F. (Mexico City). Who accused me of producing drugs. Who asked the mayor to give him 750,000 pesos to buy weapons. His name is Mauricio. Mauricio has been spreading gossip and rumors about me. I have come to Parácuaro to help. I’m not the kind of person who likes to brag, but in the past two weeks I sold 20 tons of lemons at 35 pesos a kilo. I made 700,000 pesos (about $60,000) in two weeks. I have no need to produce drugs. I want to request something of you. If here in Parácuaro you do not withdraw Mauricio from the Citizens Committee, I will leave.”
Boos from the autodefensas’ supporters, and cheers from those who consider that Cinco and his men, having ousted the local Templars, should now retire their patrols and leave it to the populace to maintain security.
Bespectacled Mauricio, dwarfed by the Comandante, steps onto the stage.
“It’s true, I went to D.F. to buy weapons on the black market, but lamentably they were too expensive,” he says. This bizarre subplot, hinting at an attempt by Parácuaro locals to rival or displace the autodefensas from Apatzingán, melts away as quickly as it appears. As to the next charge, “The Comandante says you must work. I say that the people have worked.”
The people who have worked cheer. So do those who haven’t. Commandante Cinco resumes the microphone and faces Mauricio: “Did you spread the rumor that I produce drugs, yes or no?”
“No,” replies Mauricio.
The Comandante appeals to the crowd: “Have I helped you or have I not helped you? I was born in Uruapan, I grew up in Tepalcatepec, I have lands in Apatzingán. I am from Michoacán. If Mauricio doesn’t leave the Citizens Committee, I will leave town. Who wants me to stay?” Hands go up in the crowd. “Who wants me to go?” The verticals are slightly fewer.
A third man assumes the stage - older, calmer, no doubt the president of the committee. He calls for better communication between the self-defense groups and the committee, and an end to the gossip. For his peacemaking efforts he receives loud applause. As if on cue, the Comandante and Mauricio ask forgiveness of each other and shake hands to renewed applause. The crowd disperses; dusk gathers; the movie set closes down.
A woman lingering under a palm tree brands the drama with a variation on a Mexican proverb: “Pueblo chico, rumor grande,” “Small town, big rumor.” It’s a gentleman’s spat magnified through a coiled grapevine, to be sure, but the dispute between Cinco and Mauricio also offers a glimpse into the broader problems attending the rise of an unauthorized armed force. Sudden alterations to a delicate power balance are bound to fray the social fabric, but this fabric had gone ragged long before the barricades went up and the AK-47’s made their appearance on the city square. Abused by gangsters and their government cronies—the ex-mayor was arrested for embezzlement June 15, 2014—neglected by state officials, and underserved by the region’s overmatched security forces, the inhabitants of Parácuaro, like those of broader Tierra Caliente, have little recourse but to settle their problems on their own; hence the rise of the vigilantes.
At the same time, such independence makes possible the peacemaking on stage by giving the community an integral role in conflict-resolution. Tellingly, the handshake between the commander and the committee member was sealed by a civilian. Their recourse to the crowd also attests the autodefensas’ frequent claim that they bear arms at the pleasure of the pueblo (folk, town or community). Finally, the tiff between the commander and the committee member hints at the many challenges the vigilantes face in Michoacán, as they seek to liquidate the Templars, purge the political establishment of its mafia ties, normalize their relations with the state, and avoid overtaxing the tolerance of the community they profess to serve.
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).