The next morning, at the roadblock on the north side of town, the vigilantes ladled plates of fragrant goat stew from a large pot, the latest gift from their local admirers. Though some Nueva Italia men had joined the vigilantes, this particular group of perhaps a dozen fighters were from the nearby town of Santa Ana. A number of them had been raised in the U.S., and spoke in the cool, ambling English of the Southern California streets.
A 22-year-old named Jorge, who learned his English in Tucson, said that locals had been stopping all week to tip them off to halcones, or spies, for the cartel. His comrades said they had already detained 20 of them, and were pumping them for more information.
"The people come to us and say, 'That fool is a Templario,'" said Jorge, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution. "We are nothing without them."
Another vigilante, Adolfo Silva, 20, sported an ancient assault rifle, army boots and a necklace with a dangling cross. Before moving to Mexico, he said, he was enrolled at Century High School in Santa Ana, Orange County. He joined the self-defense group, he added, when the Templarios kidnapped his cousin.
He nodded in the direction of his brother, who, he said, had once been a member of an Orange County street gang. The name Lopers was tattooed up the side of his brother's arm.
Silva said he never ran with a gang himself. And he bristled when asked whether a rival cartel was paying the vigilantes or supplying them with arms. "The Templarios just started saying all that" to discredit the vigilantes' cause, he said.
Silva had heard a rumor that the Templarios were on the big hill above town, receiving food from their own supporters, waiting for the right moment to counterattack. "We know any time they could come," he said. "We're not gonna say we're not scared, 'cause we are."
It seemed that the fear had also infected the new committee members almost immediately after their election on the town square. One quit the next morning, concerned for his life. The others ducked interview requests.
Father Patricio said that some locals were already telling him that they doubted whether they could trust committee members they didn't know personally. What was to stop them from falling under the sway of the Knights Templar, as so many others had?
Still, some were daring to hope for the best. By the end of the week, federal officials said they had taken control of 27 municipalities in the most combustible parts of Michoacan, including Nueva Italia.
On Thursday afternoon, taxi driver Miguel Angel Gonzalez was happily downing beers at a carnitas stand, watched over by a deployment of federal police. He said he was betting that the federal forces, in conjunction with the vigilantes, would identify and arrest remaining cartel members.
Others were not so sure. This swath of southwest Mexico is blessed and cursed by geography. Its busy Pacific ports serve as transshipment points for South American cocaine and Chinese chemicals to cook methamphetamine. The fertile lands are a fine place to grow fruit — and also marijuana and poppies.
Would organized crime remain here forever? On the south side of town, Fernando, a 34-year-old gas station attendant, said he wasn't certain. But he figured that the federal police would have to go home eventually.
When they did, he said grimly, the remnants of the Knights Templar would take their revenge against whoever had dared to cross them. "I can guarantee that," he said.