Backed by armored vehicles and troops, hundreds of vigilantes arrived in Apatzingan, Michoacan just before 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, occupying the main square and arresting approximately 200 members of the vicious Mexican drug cartel that goes by the name Knights Templar. The takeover strategy was a joint effort on the part of the army, police, autodefensas, and President Enrique Pena Nieto’s envoy to Michoacan. Until Saturday, Apatzingan, which is the region’s largest city at a population of 100,000 and is located in the Western Mexico state of Michoacan, was the stronghold of the Knights Templar.
When Mexico’s President Pena Nieto came into office in 2012, he set himself apart from his predecessor by seeking to avoid direct confrontation with drug cartels. Former President Felipe Calderon had ordered thousands of troops into Michoacan in 2006 to unseat the La Familia drug cartel, and, while Calderon’s objective was met, it spearheaded a six-year nationwide crackdown on cartels that would leave 60,000 Mexicans dead. The security vacuum that arose in Nieto’s incumbency would see a rise in both autodefensas and Knights Templar, which U.S. officials regard as the third-largest Mexican drug cartel.
The Knights Templar was built on a network of traffickers who grew opium and marijuana and manufactured crystal meth in super labs by importing the required chemicals from nearby ports. Rival drug cartels who wanted to take over were killed, and severed heads have been left on the floors of clubs and in plazas. In order to finance their turf war, Knights Templar began to shakedown law-abiding citizens. Weekly fees were extracted from doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, farmers, everyone who owned a house or car, and even street vendors. People who could not pay lost their lives, daughters, wives, or houses.
The groups known by some as autodefensas and by others as vigilantes, began to gain rapid momentum last National Flag Day in Mexico, February 24. Previously meeting in secret, the independent and loosely-organized groups began to publicly announce themselves and coalesce by ringing a church bell or shooting off fireworks, a signal that would trigger members to pour into the streets. In under a year, the groups have grown from a few dozen gunfighters to 20,000 members in Michoacan alone. Members run the gamut from farmers, cattle herders, and doctors to deportees and even citizens from the U.S.
Before making an attempt to at last take back the long-held Knights Templar stronghold, autodefensas first prevailed upon the smaller Templar-run cities and villages encircling Apatzingan. Upon an autodefensas takeover, Knights Templar members either flee or are sometimes executed. According to autodefensas members, turning cartel members over to authorities often resulted in unsatisfactory outcomes such as their immediate release from police custody. The local police are often disarmed and their automatic weapons and squad cars co-opted when the autodefensas takes over a city or village.
President Nieto has been sending troops to help curb the violence in Michoacan, 3,000 army troops in May as well as more in July and yet again three weeks ago, but the army by law cannot pursue criminals unless a warrant is issued or the criminal is caught in flagrante. In addition, soldiers had difficulties sussing out if autodefensas members were genuine or false. Some have accused members of being funded by the Knights Templar or its rival gang New Generation from the neighboring state of Jalisco. Initial attempts to disarm autodefensas provoked a shooting that left several dead.
Saturday’s takeover of a longtime Templar-stronghold in Apatzingan, Michoacan resulted in part from government forces working with, instead of against, autodefensas. In late January, a top autodefensas leader signed a deal with the government that legalized the growing movement in Michoacan and stipulated that some of the squads would be incorporated into a Rural Defense Corps under army command. The autodefensas lived up to the message they broadcast on their main Twitter feed, “Today the world will be witness to your liberation, Apatzingan.”
By Donna Westlund