Birrieria Apatzingan restaurant

The Birrieria Apatzingan restaurant in Pacoima is named after the city in Michoacan, Mexico, where many of its workers and customers are from. The Knights Templar drug cartel has made that city its stronghold, but civilians are fighting back. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / January 24, 2014)

Martin Cruz was chopping onions in the cramped kitchen of the Birrieria Apatzingan restaurant in Pacoima and talking with his co-worker Bertha Infante about the violence that has gripped their hometown — the namesake of the eatery where they work.

Cruz, 47, and Infante, 36, are from Apatzingan in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where armed vigilante militias have recently made headlines around the world for their efforts to drive out the dominant Knights Templar drug cartel.

The Mexican government sent thousands of troops and federal police into the state last week hoping to avert a showdown as the vigilantes seized control of communities around Apatzingan and threatened to attack cartel members there. The vigilantes said they will not disarm until the government arrests the cartel's top leaders.

Cruz said he has not been back home in 11 years but has heard the stories about how the cartel had made Apatzingan its stronghold, burning down businesses, kidnapping residents and leaving decapitated bodies in town plazas.

Infante chimed in: "Over there, better to be silent, or end up on a street corner without your tongue or your head."

But despite the violence, both said that if they could, they would return to Apatzingan, if only to see home again.

"It's where I was born, where my father and my brothers are," Cruz said with a bittersweet smile. "You miss home. If I could return, yes, I would."

The conflict in Michoacan may be 1,500 miles away from Southern California, but it is deeply resonant with the more than 1 million residents here who have roots in the central Mexico state. By some estimates, there are nearly 5 million people with connections to Michoacan in the United States, with the largest communities in California.

One can see the Michoacan influence in popular carnitas shops and restaurants that bear the names of cities like Zamora and Uruapan and in paletas Michoacanas — popsicles with flavors such as mango and tamarind.

But Andrew Selee, executive vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center policy think tank in Washington, said few groups of Mexicans in the U.S. have forged as tight a connection with their home state as Michoacanos.

"They're particularly good at organizing and keeping in touch with their home communities," he said. "They have high rates of participation in hometown associations."

Historically, experts say, the central Mexican states of Michoacan, Jalisco and Zacatecas have sent more people to the United States than any other areas.

So it makes sense, some say, that many of the ragtag soldiers in the self-defense groups had been immigrants in the U.S., including some who had been deported. Jesus Martinez, an immigrant advocate in Fresno who served as a state congressman in Michoacan from 2005 to 2008, said he understands how some immigrants from Michoacan who have been in this country for years would voluntarily return home to help in the struggle for its future.

"It doesn't surprise me that some people decided to go back on their own, or that some individuals here in the U.S. have publicly expressed support for the auto-defensas," or vigilante militias, he said. "And it doesn't surprise me that among the auto-defensas, some leaders have been migrants."

Jose Sandoval, an activist in San Jose from Tepalcatepec in the region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, has helped organize demonstrations to rally support — including money, food and medicine — for the self-defense groups, which some of his own family members have joined.

Sandoval said it would be foolhardy for the self-defense groups to put down their weapons, as the federal government has asked them to, until the leaders of the cartel are arrested or killed.

He said Mexican immigrants in the U.S. can play a powerful role because their relative earning power has allowed them to send money back to their hometowns, where it can make a difference.

"It's not just Michoacan, but all of Mexico itself. We have to make a change for the good of all Mexicans," Sandoval said. "We need to unite to form auto-defensas in all the ranchos, and all the towns and cities, to send all these corrupt criminals fleeing."

After 25 years in Modesto, Luis Alberto Rivera, 46, moved with his wife and three young U.S.-born daughters about a year ago to his hometown of Coalcoman, a city of roughly 20,000 in the Tierra Caliente. There, he said, the cartel had "taken ownership of people's lives." Even the police waved hello to the armed drug dealers as they drove through the streets.

"I had a patriotic dream of returning to my homeland for many years. The lack of safety was a concern, but my rationale was, if 20,000 people were surviving in these conditions, then we would survive too," Rivera said. "It caused me a lot of anger that people were not even putting their mind to getting rid of these criminals. I was anxious to return to help be a part of a solution."

A few months after he moved to Coalcoman, the area became one of the first to arm itself against the cartel.

Rivera said he was in a ranch just outside of the city when the civilian militias drove out the Templars. He returned to find a checkpoint manned by retreating cartel members, who stopped him at gunpoint and took his four-wheel-drive Jeep Liberty.

"They told me they needed a good car to leave to the mountains," he said.

A former drug and alcohol counselor and agricultural activist in California's Central Valley, Rivera said that his community struggles with high unemployment, but that he has joined others to create councils to plot solutions to a variety of problems now that the cartel has been driven out.

He called the quick expulsion of the Templars an indictment of the Mexican government's seeming inability to tackle the criminality that has infected much of Michoacan or to invest economically in the state.

Rivera said there was satisfaction in seeing how starkly different his hometown had become after people rose up.

"This feels like the safest place in the world by comparison," he said. "The complaint people have now is young boys driving by with their music too loud, when before there were shootings, bodies with no heads, people not knowing where their kidnapped relatives were and businesspeople being extorted."

Rivera said that times are tough, with unemployment reaching nearly 50%, and that the small convenience store he runs barely breaks even. Still, he said, he's determined to stay.

"This is a mission. That's how I see it," he said. "That's why we're here, and we have to put ganas [effort] into it."

Francisco Moreno, an official at COFEM, a Latino advocacy group based in downtown L.A., said that like many other immigrants, the tumult in Michoacan has not deterred him from returning. Seeing family is a powerful draw, and many have learned to navigate — with local help — around the danger.

Although the 53-year-old Moreno's hometown of Los Reyes lies outside the Tierra Caliente, last July its central plaza was the scene of a deadly attack. Gunmen opened fire on more than 100 people protesting local authorities' failure to protect them against cartel members. Five people were killed.

Despite the impunity that the criminals have enjoyed in the past, Moreno and other immigrants from Los Reyes have banded together over the years to return to donate ambulances, emergency equipment, money and other necessities to their hometown.

Lulu Cazarez, 49, of Delhi in Merced County returned from Coalcoman only recently. Over the years, she had been frustrated by the lack of justice in her hometown, where reporting a crime often meant risking one's life.

But during her last visit, she said, she sensed an enthusiasm that gave her hope. Cazarez said that when she found out a nephew had participated in the self-defense groups, she told him she was proud of him.

"I told him it takes a lot of courage to do that when you realize they could come back and, as they say, kill even the dogs," she said. "Despite that, people are tired of all the criminality."

hector.becerra@latimes.com