An audacious band of citizen militias battling a brutal drug cartel in the hills of central Mexico is becoming increasingly well-armed and coordinated in an attempt to end years of violence, extortion and humiliation.

What began as a few scattered self-defense groups has spread in recent months to dozens of towns across Michoacan, a volatile state gripped by the cultlike Knights Templar, a drug gang known for taxing locals on everything from cows to tortillas and executing those who do not comply.

The army deployed to the area in May, but the soldiers are mostly manning checkpoints. Instead, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing the awkward fact that a group of scrappy locals appears to be chasing the gangsters away, something that federal security forces have not managed in a decade.

They include a 63-year-old pot-bellied farmer mindful that he can run only 30 yards; a skinny 23-year-old raised in Oregon who said he had never used a gun before; and a man who wears a metal bowl stuffed with newspaper as a helmet. A 47-year-old bureaucrat, who is sure that she will be killed if the gang retakes her town, said of her decision to join the cause: “I may live one year or 15, but I will live free.”

Volunteer fighters who have been using old hunting rifles and even slingshots are increasingly armed with silver-plated AK-47s, armored trucks and other bounty that they said they have seized from the cartel. And although the self-defense groups had been operating independently, they are coalescing under the leadership of a tall, white-haired surgeon who once worked for the Red Cross in California.

What began as a lone self-defense force of citizens banding against the drug cartel, Knights Templar, has now spread to dozens of towns across the southern Mexican state of Michoacan. (Miguel Juárez Lugo & Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

“We are coming together with only one thing in mind: Kill or be killed,” said the doctor, JoséManuel Mireles, 55, who described what is happening as an armed social movement and estimated that thousands of citizen-fighters are pursuing the gangsters into the hills. “The only training we have is the courage we have inside.”

The rise of the self-defense movement in Michoacan is a desperate reaction to an increasingly oppressive drug cartel and to the security vacuum created as Peña Nieto took office last year seeking to avoid a direct confrontation with the cartels.

Peña Nieto forcefully rejected the approach of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who ordered thousands of troops to Michoacan in 2006, launching what would become a nationwide crackdown on drug cartels that left about 60,000 Mexicans dead. Although Calderón — in cooperation with U.S. forces — netted a number of high-profile kingpins, critics contended that any deeper success was thwarted as the cartels co-opted the army, federal police and local authorities.

In contrast, Peña Nieto pledged to promote a “culture of peace” by spending money on jobs and social programs to prevent young people from joining the gangs. He has spent most of his first year in office focused on an overhaul of the nation’s school system and the state-run oil sector.

But with the self-defense groups proliferating, Peña Nieto ordered about 3,000 troops to Michoacan in May to augment a force that had dwindled after Calderón’s initial deployment. Now soldiers are once again manning checkpoints along the main roads, though their mission is not clear.

In an interview, Deputy Interior Minister Eduardo Sánchez said the soldiers are there to protect civilians, but he also emphasized that they have no orders to actively pursue the Knights Templar.

“The Mexican army does not have powers under the constitution to pursue criminals, unless they are caught in flagrante or a warrant is issued by a judge,” he said.

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.

“They’d say, ‘We’re here for the fee, and if you don’t pay, we’ll kill you,’ ” said Javier Pimentel Treyes, a butcher in Coalcoman. “They had us broken.”

The gang killed those who could not pay, and more recently they began taking daughters and wives and even elderly women in lieu of “payment.”

“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.