Joel does not know where he was between December 4, 2013 and January 3, 2014. “It smelled like grapefruits,” he says, “We were laid down on the ground, with trees above us. That’s all I know.” He and three other men were tied together. “They hit us if we talked.” Joel is 30 years old and he lives in the rural municipality of Buenavista in Michoacán. Buenavista has 42,000 residents. Eleven months ago, some of them took up arms in response to the continued abuses at the hands of the Knights Templar cartel, an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana that reigns over Tierra Caliente since 2011. For years, the people were subject to extortions, kidnappings, rapes and murders. The Knights control a significant portion of the drug trade in Mexico and they have turned Michoacán into one of the most violent provinces in the country. In 2013 alone there were 990 murders.
Joel, who works in lime fruit packaging, was kidnapped while running errands in Apatzingán, the economic center of the region. Apatzingán has 80,000 residents and it is considered a bastion for Knights Templar forces.
“They kidnapped him because they had forbidden us to go there,” his father says. “They know us all and I think they were watching the arrivals in public transportation.” Four armed men approached Joel. “Get in,” they told him, brandishing the weapons. He did not fight them. He got in and they immediately covered his eyes with a t-shirt. “He had a gun pointed at my temple,” Joel remembers. The entire way. “It was long, but I don’t know where they took me.” Every night he was beaten and interrogated. The blows fell on the left side of his skull and it still hurts. “They asked me if I was a member of any self-defense groups and what I knew of them. If I said nothing, they insulted me. They threatened to kill me but I was telling the truth.”
Joel could not see anything for 15 days. Then, they took off the blindfold so that he could go to the bathroom. “They gave us a shovel to bury the excrement in the soil.” In general there was food. “Only if they had something left over. They might give us a tortilla, a piece of bread... Sometimes we asked for a grapefruit. Sometimes they gave us one glass of water to share between the four of us and that was all the sustenance they offered us for that day.” Joel thought they were going to kill him. “We would say, then why don’t just do it and get it over with, why hold us alive this long?” On January 3, however, his captors told him that they had finished their investigation. “You don’t have anything so we’re going to let you go.” They put them in a car and then transferred them to another. Then they let Joel out and told him to walk. He arrived home at 3 p.m. Joel’s father said he had gone to a Tarot card reader in an attempt to find his son. “I knew he was not dead,” he whispers. “He didn’t owe anything.”
Joel cannot sleep. Neither can María Mariscal’s mother, Rita Magaña. Mariscal was a 32-year-old councilwoman for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in their hometown of Apatzingán where she was kidnapped. She was four months pregnant and amidst preparations for a trip to the United States. She was taken from her car, a turquoise blue Honda Accord. The vehicle has not turned up. Her mother, Rita, participated in a march in October organized by the local vigilante groups. They were going to kick the Knights Templar out of town. Later that day, a grenade attack drove back the civilian crowds. “I think that maybe it put her at risk,” Magaña says. “But, there were many of us, not just me.” Some relatives think that the mayor, pushed out by the local civilian guards in February, could be the culprit: “María did not always agree with what they asked her to sign in City Council. And, she would say so.” Days have gone by but the investigation has not made any progress. “The police is asking us if we know something,” the brother laments.
Mariscal has a 12-year-old son. The young man who now attends high school where his favorite subject is math is overcome with sadness as he shows photos of his mother, from whom he got his eyes. “María likes photography,” Rita says. “She is a good person and she helped a lot of people during the electoral campaign.” There are ten poeple in the family home. “One day they called to tell us that María would not get off the highway, that she would be escorted,” remembers Juan, the youngest brother. “We all hugged together and ran outside to wait for her. Night fell but she never arrived. They just wanted to make fun of us.”
The situation in Buenavista is similar to what life has been in Apatzingán for a decade, with residents putting up with extortion from the drug cartel. “The municipal representatives would come to my mother’s store, where she had very little business, and ask her to contribute something,” Juan said. In the provincial capital, some 30 kilometers away, the drama continues: “I can’t keep talking about God and life when it stinks of death here,” said Gregorio López, one of the vicars after the town hall building was burned down. The priests who have denounced the violence in various open letters have also received threats. “The Church is the only institution that they [the Knights Templar] have not been able to take over,” said Father Adrián Alejándrez Vázquez. “In the beginning it was not only the government’s fault. We were all at fault: the Church, civil society... We got used to shutting up, to covering up. For years they fixed everything.”
To relieve the pain, the diocese decided to form a victims support group in September, a mission for solace. “Every day we visit a different house. We pray with them, listen to them or simply sit by their side, so that they do not feel alone,” explains Irene. History repeats itself: relatives get their throats slit, their legs mutilated or they simply disappear. “I’d rather see my son dead than tearing another human being into pieces,” Irene added. Experiences like what happened to Rita and Joel’s families come up everyday in every corner of the country. There are no statistics on the victims because many people just leave. “They prefer to run away and not report it,” the priest said.
Another parish colleague, Josafat, knows a lot about extortion. “Ten years ago I had a jewelry store,” he began. “I fought all my life to succeed but I had to close down and leave the business. If you want to sell property they are the ones who buy from you or they tell you “I’ll buy your life.” Now I raise cattle. It’s been a year since I’ve sold anything. They want to buy it at one peso per kilo.”
The city of Apatzingán wakes up every day under the watchful eyes of the police officers and military personnel sent by the central government of Peña Nieto. Classes are back in session and businesses are opening up their doors. “We live in an atmosphere of anxiety,” Father Adrián said. “The situation is better than a few months ago but we are waiting for the self-defense groups to come in any moment now.” Members of the Knights Templar and vigilante groups clashed a few days before in La Cofradía, Parácuaro, about 20 kilometers from Apatzingán. Last week, federal and state leaders signed an agreement to alleviate the violence in Michoacán. A few hours later, two men from the neighboring municipal government in Antúnez died in a clash when security forces attempted to disarm them. In the last few weeks, the tension rose as the local guards took over more territory. Even though the military’s presence makes a violent outbreak unlikely, no one rules out another visit from the local guards. “Apatzingán is the gem of the crown. Whoever controls her, controls the entire region,” the priest as he reflected on the Church’s role in the conflict. “We are here to provide solace, to be on the side of the victims, but now what? Who will stop the assassinations?”
Translation: Dyane Jean François