A vigilante leader in a Mexican state torn by violence on Wednesday said it would be better to kill the heads of the region’s dominant drug cartel than arrest them, and rejected a government order to disarm.
Vigilantes have been battling the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacan for almost a year, creating a major security problem for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Federal security forces have turned a blind eye to the armed vigilantes, despite calling on them to disarm.
Reporters saw police and army convoys steadily drive past sandbag roadblocks manned by members of Michoacan’s so-called self-defense groups. Some farmers in this impoverished, rugged region of lime and avocado plantations, marijuana fields and crystal meth labs say the Knights Templar have murdered and extorted locals for years.
“It may sound ugly to say kill them, but if it happened, it would be for the best,” Hipolito Mora, a 58-year-old farmer turned vigilante leader, said in an interview at a small ranch in the village of La Ruana, deep in Knights Templar territory. “If they are not killed, they should be put in jail. [The government] should put an end to this murderous organization and leave us to focus on our work.”
Mexican Minister of the Interior Miguel Angel Osorio Chong this week ordered the vigilantes to lay down their weapons, but Mora and other vigilantes refuse. Some have warned of a massacre if the government tries to disarm them by force.
“I don’t know how we’ll react,” Mora said from beneath a cowboy hat, a wallet emblazoned with a picture of Donald Duck dangling around his neck. “I hope they don’t try and that they help find the Knights Templar leaders soon.”
“We ask them not to interfere with us, don’t bother us, we have been doing their job for some time. Let them first disarm the Knights, detain them, and then we’ll lay down arms,” he said.
Osorio Chong said on Wednesday the government had three leaders of the Knights Templars in its sights. Fronted by a former school teacher, the Knights Templar is a cult-like group that styles itself on the medieval military order that protected Christian pilgrims during the Crusades.
The vigilantes range from a rag-tag assortment of farmers carrying basic weapons, from machetes and side-arms to shotguns and AK-47s, to others with apparent military training, crew-cuts and sophisticated weapons like gleaming Israeli assault rifles.
Asked to identify a group of a such gunmen accompanying him, Mora said: “They are police.”
He declined to elaborate.
The men said they had come from Mexico City.
Without meeting heavy resistance, the vigilantes that Mora says number in their thousands have occupied a host of towns in recent weeks where the Knights Templar held sway, encircling the gang’s stronghold in the city of Apatzingan.
A convoy of hundreds of federal police and troops on Tuesday took control of Apatzingan, though there was no sign of any vigilantes.
However sporadic violence continued on Wednesday. Just after dawn, two gunmen entered a pharmacy two blocks away from the mayor’s office, which was under guard by federal police, doused it in gasoline and set it alight.
“I think they were Knights Templar,” said 21-year-old store attendant Maria Cisnes, who rushed back into the blazing pharmacy to rescue a colleague’s child sitting in the back.
The tips of her eyebrows and ponytail singed by the flames, Cisnes was trembling as she recounted the ordeal.
No one was killed, but the blaze badly damaged the store, and a pungent smell of burning deodorants and medicine hung thick in the air.
The Knights have openly defied the government, putting out videos in the media and accusing the vigilantes of being infiltrated by other criminal gangs moving into Michoacan.
Mora denies there are any drug gang members in his ranks.
“I had some great offers from the Knights Templar ... to join them, but I’m not going to sell out,” he said.