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Mexican government takes drug cartel’s last stronghold in Michoacán

Vigilante leader says his group plans to stay in Arteaga until it finds kingpin “La Tuta”

Vigilante groups and police on patrol in Arteaga, Michoacán.
Vigilante groups and police on patrol in Arteaga, Michoacán.EFE

The Sierra Madre crosses the Mexican state of Michoacán, dividing it into two major regions: the cold north and the warm south. It is in the latter, in the Tierra Caliente, that a conflict has been playing out between civilian vigilante groups and the Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar), the dominant drug cartel in the area.

The southwestern corner of the state, along the border with Guerrero, contains the deepest part of the jungle and the area’s largest iron reserves. This is also one of the Templarios’ biggest strongholds, according to Commissoner Alfredo Castillo, who was appointed by President Enrique Peña Nieto to implement the government’s security strategy in Michoacán.

The top authority in these parts is Servando Gómez, “La Tuta,” the lord of Arteaga and the last survivor of the Templario leaders. The raid against him last Tuesday came just a few days ahead of the May 10 deadline given to citizen self-defense groups to disband and, if they wish, join a rural police force.

Arteaga’s challenging geography has made it an outlaw hideout for many decades. A brief note published in The New York Times on August 21, 1919 reported that one Gordiano Guzmán, a rebel leader in the region, was hiding out in the area and that the Mexican army was unable to reach him because of the difficult terrain.

When federal forces and the citizen self-defense groups entered Arteaga on Tuesday, one of the vigilante leaders, Estanislao Beltrán Papá Pitufo (Papa Smurf), reportedly entered one of the caves where La Tuta was said to be hiding, fired his AK-47 in the air and hollered: “Tuta! I’ve come looking for you!” according to a report in El Universal. Beltrán also said they would stay in Arteaga until they found La Tuta and cleaned up the town.

Arteaga’s challenging geography has made it an outlaw hideout for years

This cave life is a far cry from the public strolls that La Tuta used to take until just a few weeks ago, when he would hand out wads of cash to the residents of Tumbiscatío (near Arteaga) and proudly proclaim himself a criminal “with principles.”

The man who routinely ordered assassinations because the tarot cards told him that “someone” was betraying him was convinced that his “social work” was helping the community, and said as much in the many interviews he granted to the media. In fact, he was in the news so often that other cartel members had begun criticizing him for it.

Video footage released on Thursday shows Jesús Reyna, the former government secretary in Michoacán, negotiating with La Tuta (their wives are said to be sisters) in the presence of Trinidad Martínez Pasalagua, a former deputy for the ruling PRI who was accused of having ties to the cartel and later released. The meeting took place in Tumbiscatío, Martínez Pasalagua said.

Commissioner Castillo said one of the government’s other goals was to capture criminals passing themselves off for vigilantes who might belong to rival gangs from the nearby state of Guerrero.

Meanwhile, government secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said he was optimistic about the progress made so far and asserted that security forces would not leave until the situation was “stable.”

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