Most of the bullet holes in the houses of this rural town surrounded by lime groves have been covered by cement again. The charred wrecks of cars on nearby highways have been removed. It’s almost as if a small army didn’t invade the streets only one week ago. But there is fear, which the dozens of patrolling police cars cannot take away.
After months of fighting between civilian militias known as grupos de autodefensa (self-defense groups) and a powerful drug cartel known as the Knights Templar, a nervous calm has descended over the Tierra Caliente region in the Central-Mexican state of Michoacán. Last week, the Mexican government sent more than 3,000 soldiers and federal police to the area, which was under threat of descending into a genuine civil war. The fighting has ceased for now, but some doubt that the militias themselves won’t degenerate into a new oppressive armed group.
As Vocativ reported several months ago, the autodefensas are citizens who rose in arms last year against the Knights Templar, who for years terrorized the region with extortions, kidnappings and killings. More than 20 municipalities have joined the militia, which has set up checkpoints and patrols the roads.
On Jan. 12, the autodefensas took control of Nueva Italia, a town of 32,000 near the regional urban center of Apatzingán. That prompted an influx of federal police and soldiers a day later. Nueva Italia was widely considered to be the second-most important stronghold of the Knights Templar in the area, after Apatzingán. Early that morning, hundreds of autodefensas moved into town. Armed with automatic rifles, they sought out the houses they suspected to belong to members of the Knights Templar and opened fire. The gang members returned fire and set several trailers on the access roads to the town ablaze to cover their retreat.
“The fighting was fierce, but it didn’t last for very long,” says Patricio Madrigal, a local parish priest who witnessed the fighting. “The Knights Templar quickly fled town.”
The autodefensas were greeted as liberators by most of the townsfolk, but some are beginning to doubt their intentions. “When they drove into town last week two of them approached me and demanded to see my cell phone. They wanted to see if I knew anyone who worked for the Knights Templar,” says Fernando, a 34-year-old gas station employee, whose workplace at a junction just outside Nueva Italia overlooks two autodefensa checkpoints and a rally point for federal policemen. He does not want to give his last name, because he says the autodefensas scare him. “They were carrying heavy caliber rifles, so I did what they said. It was threatening, I don’t like their attitude at all.”
He and other critics of the autodefensas point out that, in the last seven years, the Tierra Caliente has seen a succession of armed groups taking control of the region. First there were Los Zetas, a brutal drug cartel from northern Mexico, who were chased out by the local Familia Michoacana gang. The Familia Michoacana fell victim to infighting several years ago, at which point they were replaced by the Knights Templar. Both La Familia and the Knights Templar initially appeared friendly to the civilian populace, claiming they would protect them, only to end up terrorizing the community with kidnappings, extortions and brutal killings. “What is their plan?” Fernando wonders. “They have so much firepower now, they have tasted what it’s like to be in control. Are they willing to let that power go once the Knights Templar are gone?”
The autodefensa’s firepower is impressive. According to their commanders, the militia now has more than 7,000 members, most of whom tote high caliber automatic rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s. They also have dozens of trucks with improvised armored plating, strong enough to withstand .50 caliber bullets or improvised explosive devices such as pipe bombs. The autodefensas themselves insist that they took their guns from the Knights Templar, but critics say they brandish far too much firepower to justify that claim. Rumors abound (so far unsubstantiated) that gangs who rival the Knights Templar supply them.
Some members of the autodefensas also appear to act more out of personal vengeance than the desire to restore justice to the region. Such is the case of Daniel, nicknamed “El Camoni” by his fellow militia members. He joined the autodefensas several months ago after his cousin was killed by the Knights Templar, and speaks boastfully about the war against the cartel. “We’ll drive those fuckers out of Michoacán,” he says, proudly showing a gold-plated pistol he took from a cartel member who he claims to have killed last week.
The growing arsenal of the autodefensas combined with Michoacán’s recent history of one oppressive armed group replacing the other, more and more people are worried that the conflict will soon escalate. The same goes for Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who last week demanded the autodefensas disarm. The militia refused. When soldiers subsequently attempted to disarm a group of autodefensas in the village of Antunez, not far from Nueva Italia, a shootout ensued, killing at least one. A quick negotiation between the government and militia leaders followed, after which the autodefensas agreed to temporarily halt their advance and hide their guns.
“We don’t want to provoke any more military aggression,” says Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, the commander of the autodefensas in Buenavista, a town 40 miles west of Nueva Italia. He is nicknamed “The American” by his peers, because he was born in the U.S., but joined the militia after he was kidnapped during a holiday in Michoacán in 2012. He warns, however, that the fighting will eventually continue. “Frankly, we consider the soldiers to be a bunch of huevones, useless bozos who aren’t interested at all in solving our problems”, he says. “After seven years of doing nothing they suddenly take an interest in saving us? No way.”
Torres Gonzalez says he and his fellow militia members won’t rest until they have retaken Apatzingán, the largest city of the region, widely considered to be the principal bulwark of the Knights Templar. “We’re basically just waiting for the federal police and the military to back away again, then we’ll continue. We’ll take the whole state, if that’s what it takes to eliminate the Knights Templar.”
What happens then is unclear. “There are no guarantees that the autodefensas will not end up becoming another gang,” says father Patricio Madrigal. “They must reinforce themselves as a community police force in the coming months. It is important to note, though, that there is a big difference between them and the Knights Templar. As long as the community paid extortion money, the cartel provided its own twisted kind of safety. Most people just wanted them to stay out of their way. With the autodefensas, it’s different. People approach them and want to participate. At least for now, I believe, they are the good guys.”