I am Commander Five," says a tall man, about 40 years old, dressed in a white shirt and black hat. He holds out his hand, in a bold gesture. Dozens of armed men stand guard. "Take a good look at me. I don't go around hiding my face." This is the chief of Parácuaro, one of the townships controlled by the Mexican self-defense groups, an armed militia uprising against the area's dominant drug cartel. They are in a 300-square-meter mansion that, they say, used to belong to a cartel hitman nicknamed "El Botas." Commander Five carries a silver pistol. He shows off his Blackberry. "Look, this is the shot I sent to my family. That's me with the two things keeping me safe." One hand is clasped around a banner with the Virgin of Guadalupe. In his other hand, an AK-47. Welcome to Michoacán.
"In Michoacán even the squirrels daren't move unless Los Caballeros Templarios
tell them to," the businessman says without flinching, as if he were pointing out the obvious. "They are here," he says, puffing on a cigarette and gesturing around. He's from Morelia, a city of 800,000 people and the capital of Michoacán, a southwestern Mexican state and a place of conflict, the worst the country has seen for at least 20 years. The Knights Templar drug cartel rules here.
If a drug trafficker could design the perfect place to operate, the result would be Michoacán. The state has 270 kilometers of Pacific coastline. It's a straight shot north up to Ciudad Juárez, the principal entry point to the United States for cocaine. Its fertile lands are ideal for drug cultivation. Its forested areas hide the country's greatest number of methamphetamine laboratories. Its remote villages make great hiding places; its deep gullies and canyons ideal places to toss bodies.
In a ravine outside a place they call Nueva Italia (its real name is Múgica, but nothing in Michoacán is as it appears) there are five shrines to the Santa Muerte - a folk saint celebrating death. At one shrine someone has written: "To defend you always, holy saint." The silence is unnerving. Some trucks make their way along the little road that leads to the center of the town, with its 30,000 residents. "Take the highway," says the man who identifies himself as a taxi driver.
Nueva Italia is a township controlled by the self-defense groups, civilians who rose up in arms on February 24, 2013 because they were fed up, so they say, of the abuses at the hands of the Templars: extortion, rape, murders committed with total impunity... "We all know who they are. At one time or another we have given their names to the police but they don't do anything," Carmen says in a resigned tone. She is 40 years old and from Antúnez, a small village some 10 kilometers away. The cruelty of the cartel's hitmen became so fierce that they began forcing villagers to bring them the little food they were saving in their houses, only to have to watch the cartel members destroy it right in front of them. "They drove over it with their trucks," she explains.
Carmen is dressed in black in the local cemetery. Antúnez is in mourning. The entire village turned out to bury two men. One of the dead is Mario Pérez Sandoval, a 56-year-old who confronted the army, so say his relatives, with sticks and stones. Neighbors say a soldier killed him. The other dead man is Rodrigo Benítez, a day laborer aged 27 who ran to the village's entrance when he heard the church bells sound the alarm that the soldiers had arrived. A bullet struck him in the crossfire. There's a tense calm in Antúnez. People applaud the coffins as they pass by. They shout at reporters: "Tell them in the outside world what you see here."
The army tried to disarm the vigilantes after the violence in the state alerted the federal government to the severity of the situation. The militias control a fifth of Michoacán and threaten to advance both on Apatzingán, Tierra Caliente's most important city, and on Morelia, the state capital, which is just three hours by car from Mexico City.
Earlier this month in Morelia, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong solemnly announced the launch of Operation Michoacán, yet another official attempt to reduce the violence. In his speech, Osorio did not mention a name cursed by those in Tierra Caliente: "Templarios." Until this month, President Enrique Peña Nieto had never mentioned the word "Michoacán" in public. In his New Year's message, carried by national television, the president did not even utter the word "violence."
"Where's the governor? Where's the president? They should come here! They shouldn't be afraid," said one of the women from the village. "They should know that the village of Antúnez is with these people," she says, pointing toward the dozen armed men guarding the modest funeral. They pass by with AK-47s, rifles, pistols and shotguns. They all wear a white shirt with lettering saying: "Community police."
The mourners' sobs drown out the shouting. Mario Pérez was a farmer before the war began. He was also father to three children. Two migrated to the United States. The third, a youngster aged 16, is being propped up on the shoulders of two friends. Rodrigo Benítez, the 27-year-old, was well dressed, thin and sported a mustache. He worked for only 100 pesos a week, barely five euros. He leaves behind nine siblings and a grieving mother. "I asked him not to go, I asked him not to go," she repeats, broken by the pain. "But he told me, 'Mama, I'll be back soon, so don't you worry.'" Under the coffins there are some limes, which are abundant in the region, and a crucifix painted with ashes.
In Michoacán they count the dead by the dozen -- every month. In 2013, 990 people died. With 4.3 million residents, Michoacán's most violent year was 2013, but the state has never been peaceful. In its towns the people repeat the same litany: "They disappear people here. They kill many people." Southern Mexico is a concentration of the country's poorest regions: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán. "Think about this: an unemployed father, with 20-year-old children. Since they don't have anything to eat; one by one they join the Templars. One invites the other, who then invites somebody else. And that's how it goes, thousands of times over," explains a state official.
Others say the problem is tradition. Michoacán has always been a crucial -- and convulsive -- region over the course of Mexico's history. The indigenous groups of the area are Purépechas, who were never conquered by the Aztec Empire. Their language is one of the continent's oldest, and has no relation to other American languages. Like Basque, Purépecha is distinct. The region's largest newspaper, La Voz de Michoacán, includes a section written in Purépecha.
The examples are endless. In 1810 the movement for independence from Spain began here. Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, the president who opened Mexico to Spanish Civil War exiles and nationalized the oil industry, was born in Michoacán. In the Mexican Revolution, none of the dominant armed groups (not the army, nor Zapata's men, nor those of Pancho Villa) could enter the state. "Rebels rule Michoacán," reads the headline of a news brief published in The New York Times in August 1919. It continued: "The country is controlled by Gordiano Guzmán's militias, hiding in Arteaga. The Mexican government says that it knows where they are, but Guzmán has been surrounded before and somehow he manages to escape every time." Today in Arteaga, in the state's southeast, they say Servando Gómez -- known as "La Tuta," and one of the Templars' leaders -- is in hiding. Osorio Chong said this week that the government has located three leaders of the Templars.
Michoacán is a hotbed of rumor. In Antúnez they say: "The Templars are there, in Apatzingán." That city is the economic and political epicenter of Michoacán's Tierra Caliente. It's the fourth-largest city in the state, with 80,000 residents. The hitmen have operated from there for at least eight years. After Parácuaro fell, unidentified men attacked banks and shops. They threatened to torch the market. The spiral of violence forced the Mexican government to turn the city into the center of operations that was announced last week.
Helicopters fly overhead. Dozens of military and Federal Police vehicles move on the city's streets. Everything is closed. A white banner bearing the words "Peace in Apatzingán" adorns the cathedral. At the hospital they are only dealing with emergencies. Don Celestino, a 50-year-old man, sells fruit by the cathedral's door. "In my village they say they aren't afraid," he explains. "But the only thing I am is hungry." A young soldier who says he is from Chiapas is a few steps away. "I know that things are bad with everybody. The vigilantes say they are protecting people from the Templars and the Templars say they are defending people against the vigilantes," says the soldier.
Apatzingán's economy has been practically destroyed. Its small-business owners have organized tentative demonstrations in protest at their predicament. Everybody says the drug traffickers charge fees -- extortion. The amount varies, but it's around 10 percent of their earnings. The drug traffickers have submitted the city to a de facto state of siege causing shortages in gasoline, butane and foodstuffs. Murders and disappearances are no longer news. "If this has been going on for years, why has the government only come now?" asks an ice cream vendor.
"We are at war. And I say we are because I am on the side of the vigilantes and I'm with my people in a war against them," said María Mariscal Magaña in September. She was the mayor of Buenavista Tomatlán, a township a few kilometers from Apatzingán. "Threats come from all over the place, but we can't retreat." She said that day laborers had fled in droves, terrified. Of the 200 Mexicans who tried to get into the United States via Tijuana in August 2012, 44 came from Buenavista.
A hitman threatened Magaña, accusing her of having a Facebook page linked to the self-defense groups. She denied it. "I had one, but I'd already closed it." She said that this hitman's brother called her sister, who lives in San José (California), and told her that he would "take out" the mayor. Mariscal confirmed that her sister had asked her to go live with her. "To top it all off, I'm pregnant," she added. She disappeared on December 10, 2013. The last time anybody saw her was in Apatzingán.
On October 26, 2013 Mariscal marched alongside José Manuel Mireles, the self-defense movement's leader. On that day Mireles led a peaceful demonstration demanding the Templars' expulsion. They entered and detained cartel members in front of the city office. The Templars responded by shooting and throwing grenades. Miraculously, nobody was injured.
Mireles was in an accident on January 4, the same day they took Parácuaro. On January 12 he was released from hospital to an unknown location, supposedly near Mexico City. "We wish you a speedy recovery, Dr Mireles," reads a sign held aloft by three women in the center of Parácuaro. The vigilantes have gathered the village together to inform them of the government's intentions. Entry to the village is controlled at all times by the community police.
Commander Five asks everybody: "Are you happy if we stay here?"
Hundreds in unison reply: "Yes!"
He asks: "Do you want us to go?"
Again everybody replies: "No!"
"This is a powder keg and the fuse is really short," says a source, an official in the state government. "There are at least 15,000 armed men throughout the state," he adds. "What happened on Monday could have been a lot worse given the tension here." He is referring to the two dead men in Antúnez. "Dozens could have died." The Templars, he says, are present in each of Michoacán's 113 townships. They have seven leaders. Among them is Nazario Moreno, "El Chayo," a man who Felipe Calderón's government thought they had killed in December 2010 but that, it is rumored, is still alive, living in Apatzingán.
Since February 2013 there have been many clashes but the government has not provided any information on the deaths of self-defense groups or hitmen. But in Parácuaro they say there have been deaths, lots of them. "Just on Saturday we killed 16 [Templars]," boasts a member of the community guards. He brandishes a cellphone and shows off a photo of a dead man. "That's how we leave them, so the animals can eat them. We leave them on the hill where the vultures gather."
In the El Botas mansion, which has been converted into the vigilantes' headquarters, men and women laugh, showing off how proud they are to belong to the group. "Come on! Take more photos so that my mother knows I'm here," one of them says. Commander Five takes out a wad of notes and gives a couple to one of the women. "Go buy things to clean the floor," he tells her. He explains that the money comes from businesspeople in the region. He denies that a rival cartel is supporting them. The arms, he says, are war trophies. "We take them from the Templarios we kill."
One of the region's Federal Police commissioners says that the self-defense forces "are not white doves," and that, in his opinion, they at least count on the backing of the Nueva Generación drug cartel from Jalisco. But Commander Five denies this time and again. "That's not true. This is a rich region. Look around you." He says that the money comes from donations made by businessmen and ranchers.
Hours later, on Wednesday, Commander Five announces to the villagers that the self-defense forces have come to an agreement, for the time being, with the government. He confirms that there is no going back and that they won't give up their arms until "all of the Templars" have been stopped. He asks the villagers to welcome the federal forces in a few hours. "But we are not going to leave you alone," he repeats. That same day, the Mexican government announced that they had detained "an important leader" of the Templars. When he announces the name, people are visibly let down. Nobody recognizes the detained leader's name. "And who the fuck is he?" asks Commander Five.
There's a full moon. The sky is filled with stars in the half-darkness of the Michoacán mountains. The only flashes of light come from the headlights of passing cars. In Morelia they have begun openly to say the word "Templario." Until very recently, in fact for years when people referred to drug traffickers, they only said "them" or "the baddies." The same occurred in Tamaulipas, another state battered by drug trafficking, in Mexico's northeast. People in Tamaulipas typically refer to the Zetas, that region's dominant cartel, as the group "beginning with the last letter of the alphabet."
Back in Morelia a part of the city's bourgeoisie privately sympathizes with the vigilantes. A local survey found that 58 percent of Michoacán's population approves of the movement, although 46.7 percent of respondents don't believe that their only objective is to re-establish security.
Michoacán's capital, with its 800,000 residents, is a Unesco world heritage site and the location of Mexico's most important film festival. Until very recently it was also known throughout the country for the extent of its cultural activities. But a terrorist attack in September 2008, when an unidentified group attacked civilians using grenades, marked the dividing line between then and now. Seven adults and one child died. And Morelia's peaceful image perished in the attack.
One night earlier this month a group of unidentified people went out into the streets to shoot things up. "They said, 'We're here'," says the businessman from Morelia, as he finishes his coffee in the capital. In Antúnez a few hours before, a 60-year-old man, a farmer, with sandals and clothes covered in dirt shouted at the two coffins: "We want peace in Michoacán! Peace in Michoacán! Peace in Michoacán!"
Translated by Patrick Timmons , a human rights investigator and journalist based in the Americas. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons