The group – some old, some young, some wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as members of the civilian militia – have been rolling through towns in pick up trucks with the purpose of wresting control back from the drug cartel known locally as Caballeros Templarios or Knights Templar.
Fed up with the terror and havoc being wreaked on the communities of Michoacán state, the group of ‘self defense’ fighters succeeded in running off members of the Knights Templar drug cartel in the city of Nueva Italia last week.
Prior to last weekend, federal officers’ participation had been limited to observing – lending an air of quiet approval to the goings on, despite the fact that increasing violence in Michoacán is now the largest safety concern facing President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has largely ignored and minimized the violence surrounding the drug trade since taking office thirteen months ago.
However, this week, in an attempt to gain some semblance of control, federal forces were charged with disarming the civilians protecting the town of Apatzingan, a known Knights Templar stronghold. In the resulting clash between the feds and the civilian force, firing of shots into a crown by federal forces resulted in the death of two vigilantes.
In the aftermath, militia leader, Estanislao Beltran, stated the feds should have been targeting “the real criminals”.
While the federal government tries to get a handle on the situation, Beltran says the group will store their weapons, no longer openly carrying them – with the caveat that their arsenal is close at hand should the need arise. They continue to man numerous checkpoints throughout the area, waiting on concrete evidence the government means business.
Municipal police forces, widely suspected of collusion with the cartel, have been disbanded, stood down or relieved of duty.
Speculation and theories of the real reason the self-defense force was formed abound. One of the more popular conjunctures claims the force is in league with a cartel from a neighboring state, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, with the express purpose of making room for their expansion. Beltran has vehemently denied this, stating the cartels have been terrorizing the community for over a decade and it is against all logic to think the civilian militia would take money from this element.
The Knights Templar was formerly part of the Familia Michoacán cartel, which previously controlled the meth and marijuana trade in Michoacán. Since their take-over, the Knights have expanded their repertoire to include kidnapping, extortion in the form of protection payments, and murder. They gained their stronghold and consolidated their base through gun battles while federal forces stood idly by. Army and federal police presence in the area has had little effect on the Knight’s activities.
While locals are generally pleased with the vigilante’s activities, fears of retribution to anyone supporting the effort prevail.