COALCOMAN, Mexico — Rafael Garcia slaps the oversize wooden desk where he sits, one of the last mayors still in office in this region of Mexican farm country known as Tierra Caliente — hot land.
Mayors from a couple of the nearest towns fled with their drug-cartel pals, people here say, when locals took up arms against them.
But at Garcia’s City Hall, the facade is festooned with hand-lettered signs supporting local gunmen who challenged the cartel, loosely referred to as community “self-defense” guards, comunitarios. Several cities in Tierra Caliente are now patrolled by such groups, whose members, often masked, man checkpoints and pull over passing vehicles for inspection. They have reached a kind of tense coexistence with the army, which moved in a couple of weeks ago in an attempt to bring order.
“There is no government here. There is no state. There is no law,” said Garcia, who became mayor in January 2012. “The people finally exploded when they couldn’t take it anymore.
“You serve God, or you serve the devil,” the mayor said. “Or you just have to leave.”
This western-most section of Michoacan state is experiencing a rare phenomenon in Mexico: Communities have risen up against the drug-trafficking gangs that terrorized them for years. And although questions remain over who exactly is behind all of it, the developments are posing a challenge to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who must confront the possibility of widespread vigilantism, possibly even outbreaks of civil war. His decision to send in the army last month was the first major military operation against traffickers in his 6-month-old administration.
Locals had tolerated cartel henchmen for years — and often collaborated with them — but increasingly, the bad guys harassed the public. First there was the steady stream of extortion as the cartel, which took the name Knights Templar (“Caballeros Templarios”) after the Middle Ages crusaders, gained a stranglehold on the economy throughout Michoacan, one of the most bountiful agricultural states in Mexico.
The Templarios dictated whom cattlemen could sell their stock to, then insisted on a 10% cut. Same with lumber. Lime pickers, tortilla vendors and everyone else had to pay a fee to the cartel. Homeowners had to pay 1,000 pesos, about $80, per square yard of their houses.
Refusal meant your business or residence might be burned down. Ten lime pickers who resisted were slaughtered, their bodies dumped on the side of a road, in mid-April. Garcia said he had to pay 10% of his municipal budget to the Templarios as protection money.
Then, they began raping women, often the wives or daughters of prominent residents. “That’s when it became a matter of dignity,” Garcia said.
“They see a house. A car. A woman,” said Misael Gonzalez, a timber man who heads the community guards in Coalcoman. “They wanted it, they took it.”
For years, this region of avocado and methamphetamine was home to a cult-like cartel called La Familia. Then-President Felipe Calderon first sent the military after the outlaw group in late 2006, the start of what would become a nationwide drug-war offensive. If anything, La Familia just got stronger and eventually morphed into the larger and more insidious Knights Templar.
In convoys of SUVs emblazoned with red Maltese crosses and armed with grenade launchers, the Knights Templar roamed the land, kidnapping, collecting money, recruiting followers (often from drug rehab centers), trafficking in meth and all the while portraying themselves as protectors of Michoacan.
They infiltrated police departments and local governments in many parts of western Mexico, and also came to control Michoacan’s Lazaro Cardenas port, one of the country’s busiest. There, they joined forces with Chinese traders to bring in chemicals for cooking meth along with cheap Chinese clothing and other products for sale, intelligence officials said.
Their control of the economy was so overwhelming that Mexico, normally a huge exporter of limes, primarily from Michoacan, will probably have to import the fruit this year. Knights Templar thugs forbade lime harvests when they didn’t receive their cut, and tons of limes have simply rotted on the ground.
The cartel’s purported leader is revered by many as something of a saint. Federal authorities reported that they killed Nazario Moreno Gonzalez — alias El Mas Loco, the Craziest — in a shootout in December 2010. But a body was never recovered.
Most people in Tierra Caliente are convinced that he is still around and very much in charge. According to local lore, he appears in villages, baptizes babies and preaches a firebrand form of evangelical Christianity. Many worship an angelic-looking icon of him encrusted with sparkling jewels.
Throughout Tierra Caliente, supporters have erected chapels and white adobe shrines to honor “Saint Nazario.” One, on the outskirts of a town called Buenavista Tomatlan, up the road from Coalcoman, now sits in ruins. It was trashed when the people of Buenavista rose up against the Knights Templar, a couple of months before Coalcoman.
Several armed skirmishes between local vigilantes and the Knights were reported in the weeks leading up to the army’s arrival, with casualties in the dozens.
Coalcoman, about 270 miles west of Mexico City and 140 miles west of Morelia, rose up in mid-May. For the first few nights, Garcia, 42, and his allies camped out in City Hall. He now is on the move daily, along with his wife and three children.
The Templarios have retreated, Garcia said, at least for now.
Some in the federal government have suggested that a rival cartel is the force instigating the uprisings in Tierra Caliente. Garcia vehemently denied that (“If this is a cartel, it’s a cartel of the people!”) while acknowledging that wealthy local ranchers were responsible for arming the comunitarios.
“You think they can fight with slingshots?” Garcia demanded.
The roads through Tierra Caliente are still relatively deserted, as residents wait to see who ultimately gains the upper hand in this phase of the battle.
Reporters traveling a 120-mile stretch into the most battle-scarred area pass through seven military or police checkpoints — sometimes manned jointly with the comunitarios. The army has been negotiating with these vigilante groups, attempting to persuade them to lay down or at least not openly brandish their weapons.
In Coalcoman, Mexican fighter aircraft circle overhead in a show of strength. The burned-out shells of passenger buses, tractor-trailers and sawmills can be spotted along the way, the remains of Knights Templar retribution.
“We will not let down our guard, or put down our weapons, until we see results,” Garcia said. “We want to see them behind bars.”