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Crossing Borders in Templar Territory
By Simón Sedillo
Photos: Juan José Estrada Serafín
We left a municipality in Michoacan, which is often confused in the mainstream media as part of the Tierra Caliente region, but is actually Sierra. We hear that there is going to be a negotiation with the state and federal government and autonomous self-defense groups in order to accord the legalization of the self-defense groups. We head to Tepacaltepec where the meeting is to be held. The scene is surreal to say the least, but so is everything else in Michoacan these days, so it is no surprise to us any longer. In what looks like an old farmhouse, seats and tables with white tablecloths are arranged in a large rectangle.
The mainstream media begin to trickle in. Outside the tin roofed, open-air farmhouse you can see unarmed self-defense group members or comunitarios from throughout the state gathered under a mesquite tree. Despite the mainstream media and the official line claiming the self-defense patrols are composed of marauding militias, comunitarios is what the people in this part of the state call the self-defense groups in order to clarify their relationship to the community. They are from the community and are therefore comunitarios (communitarians).
They hang two hammocks as they know these meetings never start when they are supposed to. There is a strong federal police presence as well, but there really does not seem to be much tension between the federales and the comunitarios. Several federal police officers have lost their lives in battles against the Knights Templar Cartel and there seems to be a certain camaraderie between individual comunitarios and federales, far beyond any official strategy to co-opt the comunitarios based upon the deaths that they share. Both know they are using one another to accomplish different goals. The comunitarios want to free their communities from organized crime and the federales want to prove themselves as on the right side of an all too confusing war against the Knights Templar, a cartel that acts a lot more like a religious cult than an organized crime mafia. Some comunitarios are hopeful that this will protect them from further government persecution, however the sense of most comunitarios I talk to this day is that when the Templars are vanquished, the federal government will criminalize, persecute, and incarcerate the comunitarios.
When we arrived we noticed the table where a variety of government officials are expected to be seated had several official government logos behind them on a placard. In some small way there is a sense of hope among the comunitarios, yet there is still a very evident disdain for the authorities who have been accused of at best turning a blind eye to the reality in these war-torn communities, and at worst of being complicit with the organized crime cartel. Before much longer we notice a government official removes the logos from the table. One comunitario tells us “Good, this isn’t their meeting, it is ours. We have forced them to the negotiation table with actions and results.”
Several white suburbans along with heavily militarized federal police and army vehicles drive into the grounds of the old farmhouse; they are of course escorting the governor, an emissary from the federal police in the region, and the federal commissioner of development and security in Michoacan. Their security detail illustrates the fear they must have to travel through this war zone. As the governor steps out of his vehicle, the mainstream media swarm to get the best shot of the beginning of this historic meeting, which is expected to end in a truce between the officials and the comunitarios. Slowly we hear boos and hooting and hollering from the comunitarios at the governor. One young woman holds up a sign questioning the governments intentions, and shares very strong opinions about this meeting. She is backed up by several comunitarios.
The government officials are forced to recognize the inefficiency of a drug war strategy in the region, in which their inability to identify cartel members woven into the social fabric of the entire state. In addition they must admit that it is the comunitarios who know exactly who is involved, where they are hiding, and what the cartel has done to their families over the last several years. The government officials admit that without the help of the comunitarios, it would be impossible to get rid of the Knights Templar Cartel. It is clear that the comunitarios have the upper hand in this situation.
The proposal is to legalize and formalize the comunitarios under the law. We hear whispers and mumbling amongst the crowd arguing against legalization from an authority that is, in their experience clearly corrupt and complicit with the organized crime cartel. Every time the governor begins to speak, individuals are heard shouting out insults, and booing. At a given point a moderator announces the presence of an army general responsible for the military zone in Apatzingan, a city still under Templar control today. The military official is received with a barrage of insults, boos, and whistles. There may be a love-hate relationship with the federal police in the region, but the relationship with the army is hate-hate.
Every single person we speak to clarifies that the military has time and time again proven itself to be corrupt and complicit with the cartel, not to mention that a week earlier in an attempt to disarm comunitarios in the recently liberated community of Antunez, just outside Apatzingan, the military fired upon unarmed civilians from that community who came out en masse to defend comunitarios against this official aggression. The soldiers killed four unarmed people, including an 11-year-old girl.
The accord between government officials with representatives from several, but not all, of the comunitarios includes the legalization the comunitarios under official authority through registering their weapons and their names with the Secretary of Defense. This is a stark contradiction to the military strategy employed in Antunez a week earlier, and certainly makes several of the comunitarios uneasy. On the other hand the government is forced to publicly commit to go after the members of the organized crime cartel and lock them up. The fear is that this list of comunitarios names will later be used to criminalize and incarcerate the comunitarios after they have accomplished the task at hand, ridding their state of the Knights Templar.
Another common fear is that the whole agreement is pure theater, an act by the federal government to buy time and gain control of the situation. Again the crowd is heard booing on several occasions. Two elderly women from Apatzingan under condition of anonymity tell me, “Why are they signing now? Why work with the government when we have proven that we don’t need them to organize and defend ourselves? Why sign with the white-collar criminals?”
I speak to a comunitario who has seen decent coordination with the federal police and very bad coordination with the military time and time again. He tells me, “We are trying to exhaust every possible legitimate means of defending ourselves and out communities. There is very little trust in the government officials, and we expect them to break their commitment. Whether they do or not, we will continue exactly as we have, taking control of our own security.
During the meeting we hear that comunitarios have advanced towards the community of Periban. We decide to head that way and see what is going on. Ten kilometers before Periban we come across a small comunitario checkpoint. The comunitarios there are on high alert due to what they call, “the cockroach effect”. As comunitarios advance into any community, Templarios scatter like cockroaches into adjacent communities. We talk to one of the comunitarios and ask him about the accord with the government for legalization of the comunitarios, and he repeats the sentiment of others at the meeting, “They (government officials) are using us to look good, but what they really want out of this is a list of names so that when the time comes they can disarm and detain us, after we do their job for them.”
We head to Periban, by the time we get there the town plaza is full of community members, and there is a (relatively) small military and federal police presence there as well. We see very few comunitarios, mostly with handguns meandering about the plaza. The feeling was almost festive. The town seemed as if it had taken its first breath of relief in a very long time. The rumor is that comunitarios will now advance to the next community 10 kilometers away, which is Los Reyes.
Towards the edge of town we see three pickup trucks full of men with hunting rifles, shotguns, and assault rifles. We decide to follow them, and they meet up with several other men with a variety of vehicles and weaponry at the very edge or Periban. Here we meet a comunitario who has attained some fame in the mainstream media, known as Simón el Americano. He tells us that the advance had been postponed until the following day. Reportbacks from that advance into Los Reyes verify that the takeover was peaceful and festive as well. The comunitarios plan on slowly continuing to make their way to Uruapan, an urban metropolis and stronghold of the Templarios.
We decide to drive to Uruapan in order to drop off collegues who are headed home after a simultaneously difficult and inspiring week. On the way back from Uruapan to the community we are staying at, we decide to take a more public route, which we had traveled in the past, rather than travel back through the zone of the advances, again fearing the “cockroach effect” ourselves. We head towards Apatzingan, which again is still technically under Templar control, though it has basically been surrounded by the comunitarios, who are just waiting for the most opportune moment to liberate the community in what will be a primarily symbolic gesture.
About an hour from Uruapan, just past the kilometer 110 marker seen from the roadside we come upon a scene all too common in Templar territory. There is a tractor trailer stopped in our lane, and another one parked coming from the opposite direction in the other lane. There is enough space between them so that one could pass up the first trailer in our lane, but I stop the car about 50 meters away and we watch. The trailers are in front of a PEMEX gas station, and we see several pick up trucks in the gas station parking lot, not pumping gas but lined up in order to exit quickly and together. There were no fire cans or orange cones on the road, a classic sign of an official military, police, or comunitario checkpoint. After adding up the details we decide that this must be a narco-bloqueo, or narco-blockade, a road block strategy utilized by the Templars to kidnap, extort and rob places of business and individuals.
I put the car in reverse, and make a backwards u-turn and head back a couple of kilometers to a 24-hour truck stop. As we pull in to the truck stop, two tractor trailers pull into the truck stop as well, back to back. We assume they were warned about the narco-blockade up the road and stopped before it was too late. We didn’t say a word to one another. Nobody knows who might be a member of the Templars. We ordered coffee and so did the truck drivers. My colleagues and I had already agreed to wait a half hour and try again, if the road were still blocked, we would head back to Uruapan and stay in a hotel. As I pay the bill the young woman at the truck stop says “May god bless your travels.” I am pretty sure that all of us knew that just down the road, there was a tremendous security risk to all of us. Again without a word spoken the truck drivers and us leave at the same time. We drive behind them very slowly, and as we come up on the gas station, the roadway is clear. However the 24-hour service station is closed, all of the lights are turned off, and there isn’t a soul in sight.
The Templar’s are known for storming businesses, robbing employees and individuals, and kidnapping civilians. We assume that this is exactly what has happened here tonight. We continue on to the community of Lombardia and at kilometer 115 there is a checkpoint, except that this one looks like an official one. Fire cans are visible, as well as orange cones. I advance, however as we get closer we notice that the speed bumps on the road leading up to the actual checkpoint are made out of dirt and are fresh, normally they are made out of old tire strips. Very few vehicles had been through here. We begin to evaluate the scene, there are no federal police, or military present. We see no official decals. The checkpoint has all the idiosyncrasies of a comunitario checkpoint, except that we know for a fact that the comunitarios have not made it this far yet. This was a Knights Templar’s checkpoint, and it was too late to turn around.
We see several men hiding behind sandbag barricades, and one individual flashes us with a light and orders us to stop. We roll down the passenger side window, and I flash my international press pass and the guard waves us through, no questions asked. We drive trough and about one kilometer down the road, and we see several Army trucks with several soldiers parked by the side of the road. They do not stop us or anybody, they are just there. Their presence does not make us feel any safer. We continue on our way, and into Apatzingan. In Apatzingan only taxis, known for being Templar lookouts, patrol the area. We keep our distance by running several stop lights, and stopping very slowly and keeping our distance from the taxis when absolutely necessary. Our goal for the moment is to make it to the comunitario checkpoint in Buena Vista, which opens up the way to several liberated municipalities and back to our starting point just under 3 hours away.
Soon we see the fire cans and orange cones again at the entrance to Buena Vista. This time we know that this is comunitarios. Crossing that border was the most relieving sensation I have ever experienced in my life. We tell the comunitarios about the situation and they radio in the information to others in the area to avoid Lombardia. They confirm our instincts that in fact that was a narco-blockade outside Lombardia, and that we were very fortunate to have been alert and avoided it. The comunitarios radio ahead to the subsequent comunitario checkpoints on our route back to our starting point earlier that day. As we drive through this liberated territory we realize that now, despite public opinion about the entire state of Michoacan, we are in one of the safest places in the country, and maybe the world, comunitario territory.