In a Magical Mexican Land, the Smurfs Carry AKs and Gargamel Rapes and Kills

Nov 21, 2013 at 12:58 PM ET

BUENAVISTA, MEXICO—The men move quickly, digging a foxhole and building a wall of sand bags. They wear navy-blue shirts with “Grupo de Autodefensa,” or Self-Defense Group, emblazoned on the back. Readying this roadside trinchera, they need to work fast to finish by sunset. After dark, when the federal police and army units that patrol the area during the day leave, the outskirts of the town of Buenavista are overrun by the drug cartel that terrorizes the region.

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“This is where we hold the bad guys at bay,” says the commander of this new checkpoint, which is located in the western Mexican state of Michoacán on the road between Apatzingán and Buenavista. He is a short, stocky man in his 60s wearing a baseball cap. He didn’t want his real name used. Because of his brushy beard and fatherly appearance, his men call him Papá Pitufo: Papa Smurf.

There are some 150 men in Papa Smurf’s command. “They are my Pitufinos, my Smurf Brigade,” he says with a hearty laugh.

The Smurf Brigade is part of a large and ascendant movement of civilian self-defense forces in this subtropical region of Tierra Caliente, conceived to defend against entrenched cartels.

The autodefensa offensive started in February of this year, when civilians took up arms to combat the Caballeros Templarios, the Knights Templar, a narco cartel that for two years had unleashed a reign of terror in the region through extortion, kidnappings and slayings numbering in the hundreds.

It was late last year that the cartel began capturing and raping high-school girls.

According to doctors at a clinic in Tepalcatepec, an autodefensa-controlled town near Buenavista, at least 260 girls between the ages of 8 and 12 were kidnapped from their school between November of last year and February of this year. Most of them were raped, sometimes for weeks, the doctors say. They weren’t returned to their parents until they were pregnant.

Enraged with local politicians and police for doing nothing to stop the Templarios—and in some instances being complicit with them—a small group of locals took up arms. They followed the example of other Mexican towns that had already revolted against the narcos, most notably Cherán, in the mountains of northern Michoacán. The autodefensas of the Tierra Caliente dissolved local police forces and municipal governments and chased mayors suspected of working with the cartel out of town.

“The Templarios had bribed most of the mayors and municipal police forces,” Papa Smurf says. “The federal government didn’t send any help. We felt abandoned. It was a state of complete impunity.”

At first, their numbers were small. They were mostly armed with old hunting rifles and pistols. Few, if any, had fighting experience or weapons training. Today they control as many as 20 towns and villages, and their numbers have grown to an estimated 6,000 armed fighters. Each carries an AR-15 or AK-47 assault rifle and a pistol and wears an ammunition jacket—weaponry, they say, that was captured from the Templarios.

With 40,000 residents, Buenavista is one of the largest towns in the region. On the narrow road that leads to the city of Apatzingán, volunteers patrol the frontline between autodefensa and Templario territory. At the side of the road, next to a bridge, this new checkpoint marks a recent 2-mile territorial gain for the autodefensas. The completed trinchera is an improvised casemate of sandbags with a canvas screen for a roof. There are small openings on each side, with a clear view of incoming traffic that provides an excellent line of fire to protect against approaching narcos. To the right, maybe 10 miles up a small dirt road, is Templario territory.

“They attack almost every day, usually at 4 of 5 in the morning,” Papa Smurf says. “They come in small convoys of three or four SUVs, approach the checkpoints and just start shooting.”

Papa Smurf looks around nervously. It is 6 o’clock in the afternoon, and the new checkpoint is nearly finished.

“They almost always attack new checkpoints the first night they were built.”

Smurf Brigade members range from 16-year-olds to volunteers in their 60s and 70s and are almost always male. They are friendly and talkative but defiant.

“We are not afraid of the Templarios, not anymore,” Papa Smurf says. “These bastards have terrorized our families long enough. When they come, we’ll fight them off until there are none of them left. And we do not take prisoners.”

With the rise of the autodefensas in the Tierra Caliente, violence in Michoacán has increased sharply. As of October this year, 645 people were murdered in the state, 90 more than during the same period in 2012. There are daily firefights. When the narcos attack the checkpoints, the narcos are mostly routed. But when the autodefensas dare enter Templario turf, the narcos strike back viciously.

Recent media reports indicate that of late the vast majority of casualties are Templarios.

“We won a string of victories, because the they did not expect us to start fighting them,” says Papa Smurf. “They are often under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they attack. We fight them sober, with our resolve as our greatest weapon against their superior numbers and firepower.”

The Templarios made their first appearance in the region in 2011. “They tried to appear benign at first,” Papa Smurf recalls. “They would call a town meeting and tell everyone that they were not going to interfere with our daily lives. They even said that we were welcome to join the drug trade, as long as we paid them the appropriate fees.”

Most townsfolk weren’t interested in working in the drug trade, and the cartel went looking for other ways of making money.  They began charging local shopkeepers protection money and demanded gas stations pay a percentage on every liter of gasoline they sold. They went after the farmers and cattle drivers, demanding money for everything: $4 for every kilogram of limes, $80 for every head of cattle. Soon every business in the region was paying some sort of extortion money.

“We started to become desperate,” says Arturo Silvestre (an alias), who lives with his wife and three kids in Pueblo Viejo, just a few miles outside of Buenavista. He is lucky enough to own a small lime grove and some cattle, but his relative wealth was not enough to keep him afloat.

“Most of us are farmers with very low profit margins,” Silvestre says. “So when the Templarios began demanding money, we began going hungry. We didn’t have enough money to buy food anymore. The more money you made, the more the extorted you.”

In the second half of last year, the extortion rackets degenerated into a genuine terror campaign. They say the Templarios started kidnapping at random, demanding ransoms and then killing their victims anyway, even though they were paid. They would drive around and randomly fire their guns at houses. It happened to the Silvestre residence on April 28 of this year. At approximately 4:50 a.m., a convoy of 33 Templario SUVs stopped at his house. The gang members opened fire. The dozens of bullet holes are still there, both on the outside and at the interior walls.

“They did it because they could do it, because no one was going to stop them anyway,” says Silvestre with a nervous smile.

Those attacks have stopped now that the autodefensas control the area. “Since we started defending our towns, crime has dropped to zero,” Papa Smurf says proudly. “We are the most effective police force this region has ever had.” The townspeople in Buenavista, Pueblo Viejo and Tepalcatepec I spoke to unanimously support those claims.

The autodefensas have also developed a degree of cooperation with the federal government. In July, president Enrique Peña Nieto finally admitted the situation in the Michoacán had spiraled out of control. After alleged Templarios attacked 18 electrical substations earlier this month, causing massive blackouts, he sent military reinforcements to the state to patrol the highways and regain control over the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas.

“We collaborate with them, share law enforcement tasks,” Papa Smurf says. “When one of our checkpoints is attacked, we call them for backup. Cooperation with them is important, because it legitimizes us as a self-defense force serving the people.”

There are those who oppose the autodefensas. Last month, Michoacán’s governor Fausto Vallejo accused them of receiving weapons and money from the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, a rival of the Templarios. The office of the federal attorney general in Mexico City made a similar claim in March.

José Manuel Mireles, a doctor in Tepalcatepec and one of the leaders of the autodefensas in the Tierra Caliente, scoffs at those claims. “Every reporter I speak to asks me that question, and my answer is always the same: If we were really funded by criminal groups, we would have better weapons, armored cars and rocket launchers. We don’t. And we will never accept help from criminals. We are here to drive them out.”

As the conflict in the Tierra Caliente drags on, autodefensa-controlled territory creeps towards Apatzingán, a nearby city still in Templario hands. Apatzingán is an important regional center of commerce, vital to farmers and cattle drivers from the nearby countryside to sell their products. Earlier this month, federal police arrested the presumed leader of the Templarios in Apatzingán, Leopoldo Jaimes Valladares. It is unknown who took his place, but the city remains under cartel control.

“Taking Apatzingán is our main goal right now,” says Mireles of the autodefensa’s agenda. “That’s where the head of the viper, the local leader of the Templarios, has his base of operations. Once we take it, our people can do business, and we will have access to basic goods again.”

Indeed, many members of the autodefensa say they want to continue their push all the way to the state capital of Morelia—and beyond. “We need to throw all of the criminals out of Michoacán,” Papa Smurf says. “Our goal is to wipe out the Templarios, only then will we have safety again. If the government does not take its responsibility to restore order in Michoacán, we will.”