APATZINGAN, Mexico — Their names hang from a wooden cross at the altar of a Catholic cathedral, the dead and missing of the diocese: Manuel Alaya. Octavio Contreras. Sergio Madrigal.
This has been the bloodiest year since 1998 when it comes to drug violence here in the state of Michoacan. For Miguel Patiño Velazquez, a 75-year-old bishop with a white frock and dark circles under his eyes, it is time to speak out.
The bishop has criticized drug gangs by name, supported village vigilantes and demanded that the government restore order. Where other church fathers have spoken in generic terms about the violence, the bishop has been bold, leading the Catholic Church into the heart of the public debate.
“Now is the moment to be one voice for our poor people, for our society,” he said.
But his stance has also put the bishop in the crosshairs of his enemy — a drug mafia whose leader, Nazario Moreno, has his own brand of fervent followers.
Moreno is known variously as “El Chayo” and “The Craziest One.” He may or may not be dead. He is the cult-like figurehead of the Knights Templar, which claims to be the righteous defender of the peasantry against a corrupt government.
Knights Templar members have been known to wear ceremonial white cloaks with red crosses and to spread Moreno’s religious writings as gospel. Hundreds of them used to convene to hear their leader’s multi-hour sermons. But they are also brutal killers and methamphetamine dealers who extort everyone from big corporations to street vendors throughout Michoacan, according to residents and government officials.
The Knights Templar group, which evolved out of a split from another drug gang, La Familia, has grown into the state’s most powerful mafia, draped in a patina of religiosity and insurgent rebellion. Taking their name from the medieval Catholic crusaders, members have published a code of conduct, including demands to “fight against materialism, injustice and tyranny” and “protect the oppressed, the widow and the orphan.”
Federal police said they killed Moreno in December 2010, but his body has not surfaced, and in Michoacan, he is widely assumed to be alive.
On a grassy hillside overlooking Apatzingan, a monument honors him. But someone has smashed out the concrete back of the shrine.
“He believes he’s a God,” said a security official in Michoacan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly. “He has a metal plate in his head. He doesn’t think straight.”
The Catholic priests in Apatzingan don’t consider the Templars heretics. The Rev. Javier Cortes Ochoa, the vicar general for the diocese, acknowledged that the group gives money and food to its followers. But the members’ souls, he said, have been contaminated: “The Knights Templar are sick with power.”
Apatzingan doesn’t look like a violent place. The road down the mountains from the state capital courses through lime and avocado farms and connects to leafy city streets, past a Corona bottling plant, Dodge and Nissan dealerships, and a KFC.
But a confluence of bizarre and troubling events has pushed the state into Mexico’s spotlight, particularly because of the response of residents in a handful of villages near Apatzingan who have chosen to fight the Knights Templar rather than wait for a more aggressive response by the government.
These self-defense groups, some armed with assault rifles and subject to accusations that they are front groups for rival cartels, have come under government pressure for taking the law into their own hands.
When a group marched in to take over Apatzingan late in October, Mexican soldiers disarmed them. In the ensuing demonstration, guns were fired, reportedly causing casualties.
The next day, assailants thought to be aligned with the cartels threw Molotov cocktails into area gas stations and set off explosives at 10 electricity substations in the area, cutting power to nearly half a million people.
The drug war was starting to look almost like an insurgency.
The federal government has responded by deploying more troops to Michoacan. In November, soldiers and federal police entered the strategic port city of Lazaro Cardenas, a key revenue source for the Knights Templar, which taxes shipping containers entering the port from Asia and smuggles in chemicals for its meth labs. The federal authorities replaced customs officials and more than 100 local police officers.
Authorities in Michoacan have been cautious about calling out perpetrators by name. Those who point fingers have not fared well.
Last month, the mayor of a small town in Michoacan who protested the Knights Templar’s extortion demands was found beaten to death in his truck along the side of the road.
Mayor Ygnacio Lopez Mendoza had gone on an 18-day hunger strike this year, camping in a tent outside the Mexican Senate, to protest that mayors in Michoacan were being forced to turn over a percentage of their budgets to the cartels.
Faced with all this, the Catholic priests of Apatzingan reached a simple conclusion.
“There is no law,” Cortes, the vicar general, said.
Bishop Patiño’s first open letter, written in April, was two pages long. Addressed to the “people of God” and distributed in the diocese, it recounted a decade spent under the scourge of organized crime and the “demon of drug trafficking,” an anarchy that it alleges has been ignored by authorities and that was “irrigating” the lowlands with the “blood of brothers.”
Patiño’s missive called on people to respect the word of God and resist the law of the jungle. The next month, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered about 3,000 troops to Michoacan to try to restore order.
Some in Michoacan think the Catholic Church has actively supported the village militias in their attempts to limit the influence of the cartels. “The priests are channeling money and food to the self-defense groups,” said the security official in Michoacan. The church denied this material involvement but spoke in favor of the militias’ efforts. In some self-defense villages, church bells have served as a signal to rally and fight.
In October, Patiño, who is from the Michoacan town of La Piedad, issued his starkest call. He cited the battling drug gangs, naming the Knights Templar in print and in interviews, as a main threat. He wrote of the killings, kidnappings and extortion and how whole families were fleeing the violence. How residents were forced to sign petitions asking the army to leave. How the authorities had not captured a single mafia leader “even though they know where they are.”
In a state where some people are afraid to even whisper the name Knights Templar, the bishop’s comments drew national attention, in part, as the Michoacan security official said, because with so many local government officials on the take, “the church is the only voice left with any credibility.”
The position of Patiño and other local bishops has put the Catholic Church in Mexico in something of a tough spot, said Ilan Semo, a history professor at the Jesuit Ibero-American University in Mexico City. The church leadership tolerates the public comments, he said, because it recognizes the daily dangers faced by congregations. But the bishops’ explicit criticism of corrupt local government officials as being tied to organized crime has been “problematic” for it and “is still not official church policy,” Semo said.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has been criticized on occasion for accepting donations from drug lords, including most notably a church in Pachuca, a municipality north of Mexico City, which was paid for by a man known as the “Executioner” for the Zetas drug gang.
Patiño’s comments also raised fears that the bishop, scheduled to retire soon, could become a target. One of the priests from his diocese was slain last year in an apparent dispute with the cartels.
But Patiño said he worries for all people: the mother of a soldier, a narco, a vigilante. “We should all look for peace,” he said.
In an otherwise empty pew at Patiño’s church the other day, a construction worker vented about the dangers in town.
“You have to do what they say. The government won't protect you,” the man — speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was afraid of retribution — said of the Knights Templar. “Only God can calm these storms.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.