Sporting a semiautomatic assault rifle and a “213" area code tattoo, Cuauhtemoc Espejo boarded the passenger bus and checked riders’ IDs.
Espejo, who returned to Mexico’s Tierra Caliente from California’s Central Valley a few years ago, is a member of one of the vigilante bands that in recent months took over large parts of Michoacan state dominated for nearly a decade by drug and extortion cartels.
“There is a lot of fear, uncertainty now,” Espejo said as he made sure nobody from the notorious Knights Templar gang was on the bus.
Many of the vigilantes, like Espejo, are returnees from California, where they worked in farm fields and factories before being deported or coming back voluntarily to protect their long-suffering families here.
Some say a key lesson they learned in the U.S. was that rampant extortion and the kind of brutality that the Knights Templar were spawning should not be permitted — and can be stopped.
“In the U.S. you can work,” said Leno Miranda, 34, as he sat atop a John Deere tractor plowing in a lush lime orchard outside town. “Here, it had gotten to the point where they [the Knights Templar] told you when you could work, what you could charge for your products, and demanded a cut.
“You could be selling candy on a street corner and they’d charge you,” said Miranda, who spent eight years in Santa Ana laying carpet and flooring.
The U.S. connection has helped inspire fundraising events from Southern California to Chicago. But the strength — and actions — of some of the vigilante groups has worried the Mexican government enough that President Enrique Peña Nieto recently ordered them disbanded and re-formed into a rural police force.
Individual members, some of whom learned to handle weapons as teens in California street gangs, have been required by Mexican authorities to register their firearms in order to serve on the force.
At this point, many questions remain about how the new system will work. And some who have moved back here have become disillusioned by the level of infighting among vigilante leaders, and by arrangements made with the government and, in some cases, the cartels.
“The government is making deals with criminals and not the good guys,” said Jose Antonio Cabrera from his home in Michoacan. “I thought everything would change [with the vigilante movement], but if the country doesn’t want to change, it won’t. Sometimes I think it was a mistake to come back, but I’m glad I put in my grain of sand.”
Most members, though, insist their groups have had a positive impact.
“It was a huge mess here: kidnappings, murders, dead people strung up,” said a man who would give his name only as Jerry. He returned to Michoacan from Long Beach late last year. “Now it’s a bit more tranquil.”
Asked if he was afraid the Knights Templar were merely lying low and would reemerge, Ricardo Garcia Paz, 43, recently of Los Angeles, said, “Let them try.”
Garcia was at a community center here recently, registering his pistol as required by authorities under the deal to allow the vigilantes to work as rural police.
It’s probably not surprising that many of the vigilantes spent time in California; Michoacan is one of the top Mexican states exporting workers to the U.S. In California, there are at least 200 immigrant organizations dedicated specifically to michoacanos.
One of the original top commanders of the vigilantes, Jose Manuel Mireles, is a physician who spent a decade in Modesto.
Fundraisers, marches and potluck suppers for vigilante groups have been held in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, Washington and numerous California cities, said Jose Sandoval, 57, one of the most vocal organizers. Now based in San Jose, he is originally from Tepalcatepec, in Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente region about 35 miles west of Apatzingan.
Sandoval said the money collected has paid for food, medicine and other needs — but not for weapons. In many ways, it’s a more focused version of the remittances that Mexican immigrants in the U.S. have been sending home for decades, trying to lift their loved ones in a homeland whose government has failed to fulfill basic obligations.
“It’s necessary that all Mexicans, not just michoacanos, send a little more money because of these criminals massacring and making their lives so difficult,” Sandoval said.
He, like others, said he was inspired by people willing to rise up to “get rid of all the sicarios [assassins] after they lost their fear and united and showed what they could do.”
Saying it was difficult to keep track of exact amounts of money, Sandoval said some was directed at specific causes, such as 40 widows of vigilantes in La Ruana, another Tierra Caliente town.
“It’s not just sending money to the auto-defensas who are armed, though all auto-defensas have some family here,” Sandoval said. “We have mothers and sons and brothers and sisters in Mexico, and we send that money so that they live a little bit better.”
Wilkinson reported from Apatzingan and Becerra from Los Angeles.