NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — Father Patricio Madrigal Diaz was sitting in a big, empty church describing the moment the ragtag “self-defense” forces came barreling into town bearing AK-47s — and a promise to free this farming community from the suffocating grip of the drug cartel.
The cleric was finishing Sunday Mass in a tiny stucco chapel north of town last week when his flock was alarmed by a rumble of tires. Some ran home. Others shut the church windows tight.
“Se va a poner feo,” they told Father Patricio. It’s going to get ugly.
Moments later, he said, dozens of vigilante pickup trucks were in the town center. A number of cartel supporters engaged the invaders in a shootout, but soon fled. Next, the vigilantes moved to disarm the municipal police force, which was widely assumed to be crooked. And then …
Abruptly, Father Patricio paused his story and gestured toward an older man praying quietly a few pews over. Perhaps, the priest said, it would be better to finish this conversation in the church basement.
“That man,” he explained, “is not to be trusted.”
Today, this city of 32,000 residents is occupied by the self-defense groups, as well as a swarm of federal police who came in their wake to show that the Mexican government still holds some authority in the volatile region of Michoacan state known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land. The situation is similar in a number of nearby communities that homegrown vigilantes have seized in recent days in an effort to drive out the organized crime gang known as the Knights Templar.
It would be wrong, however, to consider Nueva Italia truly liberated. People remain aware that any neighbor may be a spy for the drug lords who wormed their way deep into the sinews of this rural society over the years. There are new rumors that the Knights Templar will return soon to rain vengeance on the civilians who have sided with the vigilantes.
Some here are also worried that the vigilantes may not be heroes so much as useful stooges, fighting off the Knights Templar for the benefit of a rival drug gang known as the Jalisco New Generation cartel, from the state bordering Michoacan to the north and west. The whispers of concern come from residents who decline to give their full names, for fear of reprisal from forces they cannot presume to understand.
“The people are giving them their confidence,” said Miguel, 65, an army veteran who was studying the Bible on Thursday in a dim grocery store near one of the new vigilante roadblocks. “But we don’t know who they are.”
By midweek, the vigilantes were concentrated at sandbagged roadblocks at the town’s main entrances. They were young and middle-aged men from Nueva Italia and nearby towns. Some had once lived in Southern California. Their dress was irregular, a jumble of T-shirts, ski masks, camouflage and baseball caps. They openly displayed their assault rifles but said they always put them away when the federal police patrols came around, out of “respect,” they said, for the government.
The municipal police here had been disbanded. Security duties in the center of town had fallen to the federal officers, who stood sternly on street corners in helmets and body armor, rifles at the ready.
All around them, life went on as it had to in a scruffy city of lime pickers and papaya growers. Trucks were repaired at mechanic shops, tacos consumed at taquerias. Men and women returned home from the fields, packed, like so much cargo, into truck beds.
On Wednesday evening, hundreds of residents gathered on the broad concrete square. These were the people fed up with the Knights Templar, tired of the protection payments small businesses were forced to make, or the tribute demanded of the lowliest field hands. They were tired of the killing and mayhem and terror.
Before the vigilantes’ arrival, said Marta, a 62-year-old agricultural worker, “you weren’t free here.” She said she had paid dearly for the return of two children the cartel had kidnapped.
The residents had convened under a full moon to elect a committee to feed and otherwise support the self-defense groups. Nominees were pushed out of the crowd and onto a stage by friends, remaining there if the crowd cheered them, and stepping down if booed. Eventually five men and a woman were selected, among them a mechanic, a doctor and a teacher.
Municipal president Casimiro Quezada Casillas uttered a few stirring words about how challenges can unite a community. He was met with catcalls. Father Patricio said that the entire local government was widely known to be “at the mercy” of the cartel.
But there was also a feeling that people of goodwill were gaining the upper hand. A man named Rafael Sandoval took the stage and grabbed a microphone. “Señores,” he said, gesturing to the committee members, “I hope that those who are here have these.”
He grabbed his crotch, unleashing an explosion of applause.
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.