“They kidnapped my sisters. They tried to kill my wife and my children. And when they started going into the schools and taking the baby girls, 11-year-olds, 12-year-olds, that was my breaking point,” said Mireles, who has four daughters and has treated many rape victims in his clinic. “We have a lot of anger.”
Locals said that they filed complaints and pointed out the gangsters to local authorities but that nothing ever happened.
“The government never saw them around here,” said Pimentel, explaining his view that local officials were corrupted by the cartel and ignored residents’ complaints. “We couldn’t take it any longer. We held until our last breath.”
In Tepalcatepac and Coalcoman, the movement began with whispers and secret meetings.
“You’d look at someone in the eyes, and if they lowered their view, you knew you could not trust them,” said Juana Francisca Reyes, the bureaucrat.
“We would ask, ‘Are we going to live this way our whole lives or what?’ ” said Misael, the sawmill owner.
In Tepalcatepec, a core group formed that included many cattle raisers angry that the cartel was about to take over their association’s governing board. They decided to make their stand at the semiannual association meeting.
“When those criminals climbed onto the stage, we said, ‘How is this possible? We are many, and they are so few,’ ” Reyes said.
Hidden shotguns and even machetes came out, and the crowd swarmed 15 men whom they recognized as gang members. Amid clashes over the next hours and days, locals detained many more, handing them over to the state prosecutor in the town of Apatzingan, a cartel stronghold.
After 12 hours, however, the prisoners were released.
Since then, Mireles said, “we decided not to detain anyone anymore.”
‘They are afraid of us’
In recent months, Mireles said, he has helped organize self-defense groups in other towns, where, he noted, the residents include American citizens, most of them children born in the United States to Mexican parents.
The groups ring a church bell or shoot off fireworks, and thousands pour into the streets, he said.
“It’s curious,” the doctor said. “These people who had tied people up, blindfolded them and executed them, when we shoot, they run. I think they are afraid of us.”
He and others also wonder how they have been able to do what far-better-armed federal security forces have not.
“Just look at the military people — they have gear, they are trained, very capable,” said Pimentel, the butcher. “But here, the locals, the farmers, the workers, we are doing the job. Now we have to be sure those people are not coming back.”
In recent weeks, local militias have shifted from guarding their own towns to conducting operations in the surrounding hills. The military appears to be cooperative, though locals remain unsure whether it can be trusted.
Mireles said that prisoners taken by the self-defense groups have disclosed locations of Knights Templar safe houses and that the militias are mounting ambushes almost every day.
Sánchez, the deputy interior minister, said the only ongoing cooperation involves information sharing, which he credited for the recent arrest of a key Knights Templar leader and for the improved security in many towns.
He said he knew of no operations being conducted by self-
defense forces in Michoacan.
“No, no, no, no way,” Sánchez said. “They are just common citizens that are using some old hunting rifles and household weapons to protect their families.”
Miguel Juarez Lugo contributed to this report.