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Exactly a year ago today, February 24, 2013, in “Tierra Caliente,” Michoacán, a group of farmers and businessmen in two communities organized themselves to take up arms against the Knights Templar drug cartel. Tired of the absence of the rule of law, the lack of governability, and persistent corruption, they took matters into their hands and formed what they called “autodefensa” militias in towns of Tepalcatepec and La Ruana. In January, we returned to meet the militia leaders, to find out what is happening today in the region known as the Hot Land.
The goal of the self-defense movement was to do away with the extreme violence that gripped “Tierra Caliente.” The Knights Templar not only had control of the production of marijuana and methamphetamine in Michoacán, they also diversified to such a point that the local communities had to pay them extortion “taxes.” Kidnappings, assaults, and homicides became commonplace.
The Knights Templar calls itself a “brotherhood” with its own statutes and codes. Its members use military-style uniforms modeled on the Middle Ages, and even its founding “spiritual” leader, Nazario Moreno, is venerated as a saint.
Little by little, the self-defense groups have expanded into places where the Templarios are strong. In each community they enter, they build barricades and set up checkpoints at every access point. They guard towns around the clock, armed with AK-47s, AR-15s, and other weapons that they claim were decommissioned from the Knights’ forces. However, some authorities have suggested that the self-defense groups are being armed by one of the Knights Templar’s rival cartels, Jalisco Nueva Generación. The “autodefensa” groups deny the claims.
A year after the self-defense uprising, the conflict continues. Negotiations with the government have led the militias to be folded into a little-known body within the government called the Rural Defense Forces. Yet, the principal leaders of the Knights Templar remain at large and uncertainty reigns over the Hot Land. The leadership of the self-defense militias has seen splits and ruptures, increasing the tension.
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