Six years later, the Mexican government and its U.S. advisers have all but wiped out La Familia. But as federal forces receded, an equally powerful cartel, the Knights Templar, took its place, squeezing extortion payments from entire towns, torching businesses and killing anyone who challenged its rule.
Local farmers and shopkeepers have increasingly banded together to form armed “self-defense” groups, chasing off corrupt cops and setting up checkpoints along the highways to sniff out traffickers.
But their appearance in more and more towns — and the spectacle of masked, ragged irregulars parading around on national television with weapons — has presented a growing challenge to the Peña Nieto government, sensitive to the perception that the Mexican state is teetering in parts of the country.
The self-defense groups have also brought the wrath of the gangsters, who have shot up their towns and laid siege by cutting off shipments of gasoline, food and other supplies. In some parts of Michoacan, the charred hulks of delivery trucks line roadways, left as warnings to businesses that might try to defy the cartel cordon.
With the towns appealing to the government for help, the Peña
Nieto administration is launching yet another attempt to placate Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land,” a farming region along the Pacific Coast that was famous for its avocados and melons before it earned a reputation for meth labs and beheadings.
On Tuesday, Mexico’s top security officials convened amid heavy security in Morelia, Michoacan’s capital and a city that used to be popular with U.S. students but is now a virtual no-go zone for foreign tourists.
Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong told reporters after the meeting that federal forces would not pull back from the state until law and order had been restored.
“Our fundamental goal is simple: to come to Michoacan and not leave until peace and security have been provided for every Michoacan resident,” he said.
Osorio Chong pledged smoother coordination among local, state and federal forces this time, led by the military commander that the Peña Nieto administration has placed in charge of security for the state. He said the government has had little trouble getting the vigilante groups to stand down so far, because “they have been asking for a military presence.”
When the military convoy rolled into the town of La Ruana on Monday to cheering crowds, the ragtag local self-defense force that had been staving off the Knights Templar declared victory.