APATZINGAN, Mexico – In this city in western Mexico, sympathy runs strong for the Knights Templar, a cultlike drug cartel that has used extortion and intimidation to control much of the local economy and undermine government.
A few miles up the road, however, amid the lime groves and avocado fields of Michoacan state, residents have taken up weapons to run the Knights Templar out of their towns. They call themselves “self-defense” squads, their territory “liberated.”
For the moment, the two well-armed camps are being kept apart by a stepped-up but tenuous federal military deployment. Michoacan, one of Mexico’s most abundant agricultural regions, has become a state divided, riddled with fear and largely out of the national government’s control.
Whether President Enrique Pena Nieto can reassert authority may prove the most serious test of his government’s security policies. His predecessor, who made Michoacan a priority, failed.
“We didn’t feel like we were at war before, but now we do,” Marcos Alonso, an Apatzingan businessman, said in the sweltering heat of a city temporarily under army and police guard.
Probably nowhere else in Mexico has a cartel managed to so thoroughly permeate society and dominate law enforcement and economic and political life, including city halls, transportation and even journalism. Spouting pseudo-religious rhetoric and casting themselves initially as protectors, the Knights Templar morphed from an earlier cartel, La Familia, cornered the production and export of methamphetamine, and then expanded to a far wider bribery racket.
In a belated response, Pena Nieto early this month deployed troops, seizing the corruption-infected Lazaro Cardenas port, one of Mexico’s busiest, sending drones over the valleys and arresting hundreds of police officers. The move came a couple of days after suspected cartel gunmen launched simultaneous attacks on 18 electrical substations, plunging half a million people into darkness.
Residents began rising up early this year after finally becoming desperately fed up, they say, with extortion, killing and rapes perpetrated by members of the Knights.
Eventually, five main towns and numerous villages came under control of the vigilantes, who sent the traffickers scurrying and in some cases ousted mayors and other local officials.
Jose Antonio Cabrera is one of the vigilantes. When he heard his hometown was part of the uprising, he left Long Beach, Calif., where he was working as a gardener, and returned to grab an AK-47 and protect his long-suffering family. He and his buddies take turns patrolling the outskirts of liberated towns to keep the Knights away.
“We know that if we leave, they will come back and massacre everyone,” said Cabrera, 33.
Villagers sing the praises of the vigilantes but also fear that the cartel will eventually return. They say they feel trapped, unable to venture far from their towns lest they be killed by lurking Knights Templar thugs. Many can no longer get their produce to market.
Margarita and Luis Manuel Martinez, sibling lime-pickers who own about 2 1/2 acres of orchards in the village of Pueblo Viejo, said that where you are from determines where you can go. They listed friends and relatives who have disappeared after venturing about 20 miles southeast into Apatzingan: a taxi driver, a mechanic, a nephew. The latter reappeared after about a week of detention.
“It’s apparently calm, but this situation is a time bomb that could explode at any moment,” Luis Manuel Martinez, 41, said.