Shortly after lunchtime on 22 July this year, gunmen appeared in the central plaza of Los Reyes, a small town in the violence-plagued state of Michoacan in western Mexico. Without warning, they opened fire on some 150 protesters gathered there, killing five people. Women and children threw themselves to the ground as the shots rang out. Witnesses claim that police simply stood by.
The demonstrators had gathered to protest against local authorities, who they claim have done nothing to protect them against The Knights Templar, a powerful drug cartel that threatens residents. The gang is said to operate above the law in Michoacan, murdering or disappearing anybody who questions its rule.
“We held the protest to ask for justice,” Miguel, one of the men who was in the plaza that day, told The Independent at a press conference held in Mexico City to publicise the plight of Los Reyes. “What happened next was beyond comprehension. They fired at us in cold blood. People hit the ground and were killed. They even fired at women and children. It was a cowardly and pathetic act.”
The residents of Los Reyes have found themselves in the firing line of organised crime ever since they took up arms earlier this year, forming a community police force to defend themselves against The Knights Templar. More and more communities in rural areas of Mexico are taking the law into their own hands as the country’s criminal groups seek to expand their territories.
Eight of the survivors of the Los Reyes massacre visited Mexico City on Monday to tell federal authorities and the capital’s media about the living hell of Michoacan, where The Knights Templar and other criminal organisations jostle for control. President Enrique Peña Nieto sent 6,000 troops to the state in May but the deployment has done little to restore security.
The eight men and women, all indigenous Purepecha, wore headscarves over their faces to protect their identities. “We’ve come to demand justice,” one of the men said. “We ask the government that they send more soldiers, more marines and more federal police to guarantee our safety. We’re afraid. The kids have stopped going out to play, the men have stopped going to work.”
The Knights Templar arrived in the once-peaceful county earlier this year. “They first showed up on 21 January and handed out envelopes they wanted filled with money,” Miguel said. “We were scared, we didn’t know whether to accept or not. People from four nearby communities got together and decided by vote that we [would] not co-operate. Two days later we went to inform the county mayor but he wouldn’t receive us.
“From that moment on, there have been attacks. Someone from our town disappeared; we don’t know where he is. We told the authorities and we didn’t hear anything back. We’re convinced that some officials and local police are working with the criminals.”
Michoacan, a largely rural state on Mexico’s south-west Pacific Coast, is currently at the epicentre of the country’s organised crime violence. Following the killings in Los Reyes in July, The Knights Templar blocked highways in several parts of the state and attacked federal police patrols, leading to a gun battle that took the lives of 20 gunmen and two federal officers. On Sunday, a vice-admiral of the Mexican Navy, part of a deployment of marines to Michoacan, was murdered in yet another attack.
“Michoacan is one of the parts of the country most heavily captured by organised crime,” says Jose Gil Olmos, a journalist with the magazine Proceso. “The local police forces are either infiltrated or demoralised. Roughly 70 per cent of the communities in Michoacan are under the thumb of these groups.”
The explosion of violence in western Mexico comes shortly after Mexican and US authorities claimed a significant victory in the war on organised crime after the capture of Miguel Angel Treviño, aka “El Z-40”, in northern Mexico last month. Treviño was the presumed leader of The Zetas, one of the country’s most powerful criminal organisations, known for operating drug and human-trafficking rings.
But the focus is now on a state hundreds of miles away from the US border, where gangs are fighting a proxy war in the larger struggle for control of trafficking routes and territory.
Michoacan is known as a major entry point for South American cocaine as well as a centre for marijuana and opium production. The drug gangs, who are allied with larger organisations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and The Zetas, also prey on the local population, demanding money and carrying out kidnapping and other rackets. The region most affected is known as Tierra Caliente, or “The Hot Land”, where the states of Guerrero, Mexico and Michoacan meet. The lawlessness in this part of the country has seen a surge of community-led police forces, militias or self-defence groups, a phenomenon that has divided public opinion, with some groups clashing with government security forces as well as the gangs.
In May, a self-proclaimed community police force from Buenavista Tomatlan, another town in Michoacan, detained 24 soldiers in retaliation for the arrest of one of its members. The army later released the man in exchange for the soldiers being returned, avoiding bloodshed.
“We don’t consider ourselves community police or self-defence groups,” Miguel explains. “We’re just ordinary people, farmers, who have organised ourselves to defend our communities and our livelihoods. We came together as one and said no, we won’t pay [protection] nor go along with the gangs.”
When Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon launched an expensive and bloody war against the country’s drug cartels in 2007, Michoacan was the first place he sent troops. Violence ebbed and flowed in the state for the next six years, reaching a grisly peak in 2008 when gunmen tossed hand grenades into the central plaza of the state capital Morelia during Independence Day festivities, leaving eight dead and 100 wounded.
Michoacan was long dominated by a mafia known as The Family, which remarkably began life in the 1980s as a self-proclaimed vigilante group devoted to combating the drug cartels. By the 1990s, however, they had begun working for the Gulf Cartel, a major drug gang from north-east Mexico. When the country’s cartel war began in earnest, The Family split in two, spawning a new group called The Knights Templar and a protracted battle for control of the state.
Community police forces are sometimes endorsed by the authorities and sometimes not. One of the most famous examples can be found in Cheran, a Purepecha logging community of 12,000 that declared autonomy in 2011 after three years of attacks by gangs that stole timber and extorted local residents. According to Mexican law, Cheran is now officially an autonomous self-governing municipality. Governed by a communal assembly, citizen-led police patrol the highways and forests surrounding the town.
“Our people were being murdered for confronting the gangs,” a resident of Cheran who works for a local radio station, told The Independent. “The police were complicit; they were either co-operating with the gangs, or at the very least standing aside. We don’t rely on the authorities anymore. Now we take care of our own affairs.”
Mexico’s cartel wars began shortly after the country’s democratic transition of 2000. The arrest of figures such as El Z-40 has done little to reel in the violence, and in many cases, leads to more carnage as a power vacuum emerges that other groups look to fill.
“We’re raising our voices for the dignity of our communities, which have always been neglected,” Miguel said. “Where we live, we receive no support, no protection, no public services. All we’re asking for is justice. We’re not the ones spilling blood.”
The Mexican government has announced that a further 2,000 soldiers and police will be sent to Michoacan following the recent violence.