In tense Mexico state, vigilantes refuse to drop guns
COALCOMAN, Mexico - Farmers wearing bulletproof jackets and toting assault rifles ride in pick-up trucks emblazoned with the word "self-defense" to protect this rural western Mexico town from the Knights Templar drug cartel.
The federal government deployed thousands of troops to the state of Michoacan this week, but in some towns like Coalcoman, population 10,000, vigilantes are refusing to put down their weapons until they feel safe again.
"We won't drop our guard until we see results," Antonio Rodriguez, a 37-year-old avocado grower and member of the community force, told AFP.
Last week, Coalcoman residents packed the main square to give their support to the 200-strong vigilante patrol, making it the latest Michoacan town to take up arms in recent months to fight off the extorsion and violence perpetrated by gangsters.
The town lies in a region called Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, known as a hotbed of cartel activity.
The vigilantes carry handguns and hunting rifles, but a few were seen Wednesday roaming around with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. In other towns many wear masks to protect their identities.
"We got tired of paying the quota," said Adriana, a 32-year-old woman working in a pharmacy.
The "cuota" is extorsion money charged by the Knights Templar every week or month from business owners, farmers, taxi drivers and even mayors.
"The one who didn't pay would be kidnapped and 'bang, bang,' they'd kill him," said Adriana, squeezing her finger as if pulling a trigger.
In recent months, the self-defense groups detained people they accused of working with the cartels and clashed with drug traffickers. The gangsters responded by besieging towns and preventing food deliveries.
Michoacan was the first state to see troops when then president Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers and marines across the nation to crack down on cartels in 2006.
But gang violence surged throughout Mexico, leaving 70,000 people in its wake by the time Calderon left office in December, and a powerful new cartel, the Knights Templar, emerged in Michoacan.
The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto sent around 4,000 soldiers and marines this week along with 1,000 federal police, vowing that they would stay until peace is restored in the troubled state.
Military surveillance planes fly over towns while soldiers man checkpoints in Tierra Caliente. But self-defense groups still staff their own road blocks in some parts despite the military presence.
"They should first disarm organized crime, then the people," said a young man wearing a bulletproof jacket and a white T-shirt inscribed with the words "self-defense group" in the back.
Late Tuesday, a vigilante patrol detained one man they accused of being a thief in Coalcoman. He was beaten and paraded in the town square with a bloody face in front of residents a dozens of federal police.
The road linking Coalcoman to the village of Buenavista is littered with the charred remains of buses and other vehicles that were used by the Knights Templar to block the delivery of food, medicine and other goods.
At the entrance of Buenavista, a sign greets drivers with the words: "Welcome to the village of Buenavista, free of quotas and Knights Templar."
A checkpoint was installed on a white altar with a red cross that was built by the Knights Templar on the side of the road in honor of Nazario Moreno, alias "El Chayo," a drug lord that the government believes was killed in a clash in 2010.
His body was never found and the religion-inspired Knights Templar revere him like a saint. The words "Saint Nazario" are painted on the Buenavista altar, which is riddled with bullet marks.
Buenavista's vigilantes said the area became safer once they took up arms. They just want the authorities to get rid of the cartel.
"If they want, we'll take them to the town, street, gully or lair where they're hiding," said one of the armed civilians.
The Knights Templar cartel has accused the vigilantes of being backed by their enemies, the Jalisco Nueva Generacion cartel, which is linked to the Sinaloa syndicate led by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The cartel, which is an offshoot of the faded crime syndicate La Familia Michoacana, describes itself as an "insurgent" group. Its members must follow an honor code based on the group's interpretation of religion.
The self-defense militias deny any links to narco-traffickers, but Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos suggested on Tuesday that some were getting support from dubious groups.