The Knights Templar, which U.S. officials consider Mexico’s third-largest drug cartel, is a successor to the notorious La Familia group, which the government claimed to have dismantled in 2010. Its operations include methamphetamine labs, distribution networks and extortion rackets.
The group is media-savvy, and Sánchez warned that it has organized fake self-defense groups in towns that it controls.
But at same time, he said, the government considers the forces from Tepalcatepec and several other areas to be “genuine.” He said the groups are “cooperating” with the military by sharing information about criminals and have been “invited to keep their weapons hidden in their house.”
“We believe with the arrival of federal forces to the state, the people find they are being protected,” Sánchez said.
But in this hilly area of farms and lime groves, and two-lane roads that link town after battered town, the reality is more complicated.
On one hand, many locals believe that the army has arrived to target the self-defense groups: Soldiers have unsuccessfully tried to disarm the militias, which residents believe would amount to a death sentence. In recent days, rumors have spread that the government is preparing charges against Mireles and a leader from a neighboring town, JoséMisael González. Neither carries a weapon.
“We don’t know if they are helping us or hurting us,” said Misael, a sawmill owner from the town of Coalcoman.
On the other hand, cooperation seems to be developing between the self-defense groups and the army: In recent days, soldiers at two checkpoints waved through Mireles and a convoy of 26 militia trucks heading to reinforce positions on the outskirts of five towns, the barrels of AK-47s poking out of open windows.
Gang’s ruthless grip
The story of how a critical mass of people finally decided to confront their tormentors emerged from interviews in Tepalcatepec and Coalcoman, one-plaza towns where residents spoke freely about their lives under the Knights Templar, something they rarely dared to do before.
“You couldn’t even look at them,” said Adolfo Arzate, the pot-bellied farmer, wearing a white T-shirt that read “For a free Tepalcatepec.” “You couldn’t even mention the Templar name.”
There was the humiliation of watching gangsters speed around town in fancy trucks, shut down streets for drunken parties or beat to death an elderly man who scolded them. There were kidnappings and executions. Then there was the gang’s ruthless, mafia-like control of almost every facet of the local economy, down to a street-side taco stand.
The area’s lime growers, for example, were taxed by metrics that included acreage, limes harvested and crates packed. The meager wages of the lime pickers were also taxed, along with the bus fares that they paid to get to the groves. Gang members taxed sacks of corn and the tortillas made from them. A man installing a floor in his house soon had a gang member at his door, demanding a fee. A man who ran a restaurant said the cartel began taking a cut of the coins in his jukebox.