Vigilantes, weary of crime gangs, seize control of towns in Mexico's Michoacan

TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico — Rogelio Valencia peered out from a sandbag bunker outside Tepalcatepec in a fertile region of Mexico's Michoacan state, keeping an eye cocked for marauding gangsters.

"They might come in 10 or 12 pickups. But we are prepared," said Valencia, a civilian with a pistol tucked in his waistband and a two-way radio at hand.

Tepalcatepec is in a "liberated" region of Michoacan state, where an armed uprising of civilians has succeeded in lifting a yoke imposed by a crime group with a feudal-sounding name, the Knights Templar, which keeps a searing and heavy hand on the majority of Michoacan's 113 municipalities.

It is a success story of sorts, if you call one illegal armed group supplanting a more powerful one an improvement.

It is also part of the dramatic panorama on display in Michoacan in western Mexico, a state that's been virtually controlled by organized crime for seven years, and perhaps longer.

Extortion by the Knights Templar reached such a degree that President Enrique Pena Nieto ordered the removal of all city police in the Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico's busiest, on Nov. 4 and deployed soldiers to oversee port activities.

Criminal chaos and rampant corruption have surged so strongly in recent months that a Roman Catholic bishop, Miguel Patino Velazquez, issued a pastoral letter in mid-October bluntly assessing the region's dilemma.

"The state of Michoacan has all the characteristics of a failed state," he wrote.

Most mayors and municipal police forces "are subject to or in cahoots with criminals, and the rumor keeps growing that the state government is also at the service of organized crime," Patino wrote.

Federal police and the army are deployed in the state but "not a single one of the capos of organized crime has been captured, even though their whereabouts are known," he wrote.

After issuing the letter, threats arrived at Patino's diocesan headquarters in Apatzingan, and the Mexican church whisked him out of Michoacan earlier this month.

For avocado grower Jose Alvarado Robledo, the prelate's words are gospel.

"The government lost control. Organized crime is in control of the state except in the towns that have risen up in arms," said Alvarado, a leader of one of the armed self-defense groups that have emerged in six municipalities in the state's northern area.

Alvarado said "about 5,000" civilians have joined the self-defense groups. They're armed with "shotguns, ram's horns (AK-47s), AR-15s, .22s, hunting rifles," he said. "Sixty percent of these weapons have been taken from the Templars."

Alvarado said the self-defense groups would remain armed and on patrol until authorities "hand over the heads of the four leaders of the Knights Templar."

A Templar leader, Servando Gomez, posted a YouTube video in April in which he accused a rival cartel from neighboring Jalisco state, New Generation, of financing the self-defense groups, a charge the groups' leaders adamantly deny.

For now, travelers arriving in "liberated" areas pass through two sets of roadblocks — one operated by soldiers and another by armed self-defense groups with no legal authority other than the support of townspeople.

Inside Tepalcatepec, which is set amid rolling hills of mango and lime groves, merchants voiced relief that the extortion of the Templars had been lifted.

"If you didn't pay, they ran you out of town or they chopped off your head," said Vicente Diaz, owner of a dry goods store.

Residents said accountants working for the gangsters charged storeowners a monthly fee, imposed a tax on all vehicles, put a tariff on each crate of harvested fruit and were preparing to tax housing based on square footage.

"They came in and took measurements," said Amador Cuevas, a cheese vendor. "They came into my mother's house with a tape measure."

What really set off residents, though, was the pillaging of girls and wives.

"If they liked your daughter, they'd say, 'Bathe her up and I'll be back in an hour for her,' " said Estanislao Beltran Torres, a 55-year-old agronomist.

Jose Manuel Mireles, a physician who leads the self-defense group in this city, said gangsters abducted 14 adolescent girls in December 2012 alone and got them all pregnant.

That's when Mireles secretly began forming Tepalcatepec's self-defense group, which emerged publicly on Feb. 24. A similar movement emerged the same day in a nearby town, La Ruana. Since then, the movement has spread, and gangsters have stayed away, though they're twisting an economic noose around the breakaway region, even cutting off gasoline supplies for five weeks this autumn.

Hipolito Mora, one of the most widely known of the self-defense force leaders, sighed when a visitor to La Ruana asked him how his ragtag band was handling public security issues in the town.

"We aren't prepared for this. We've had no training as police," Mora said.

He acknowledged that the self-defense forces operate illegally.

"We know we are breaking the law. We are conscious of this," Mora said. But he added that citizens had nowhere else to turn against the Knights Templar. "They did whatever they wanted. No one protected us."

He predicted that the self-defense groups would not disappear anytime soon.

"I'd like to be wrong, but I think it will take years," Mora said.

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