APATZINGAN, Mexico — Businessman Carlos Halabe at last feels safe enough to describe the terror his city endured under the thumb of Mexico’s Knights Templar gang.
“They controlled all social and economic life here,” says Halabe, the 42-year-old head of the chamber of commerce in Apatzingan, a city of 120,000 people in the citrus-growing lands along the Pacific coast of Michoacan state (map).
“They killed many business owners, kidnapped people who objected, obligated us to close businesses, collected very high extortion,” he says. “This was utter hell.”
Apatzingan was once ruled by the Knights Templar, which officials say also runs meth-smuggling routes.
But the gangsters seemingly evaporated from the city on Feb. 8, when anti-Templar militias marched into the city backed by federal police. Hundreds of soldiers and cops now patrol the city’s streets, while militia gunmen man checkpoints on its outskirts.
A wary calm reigns here, as it does in nearby towns freed from the Templars' grip over the past year. Federal officials have declared victory. They’re moving to essentially deputize hundreds of the militiamen, converting the untrained armed civilians into local police.
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Though thankful for the respite, Halabe and many other local residents remain far from convinced. Federal government efforts have proved short-lived and ineffective in the past seven years of narco violence that have left as many as 100,000 Mexicans dead or missing.
Residents here are asking: Would gangsters as brutal and feared as the Knights Templar so easily surrender millions of dollars in profits from drug running, extortion and other rackets? Can untrained civilians really bring a lasting solution that thousands of troops couldn’t? What becomes of the deputies once the sheriff rides away?
“We have more uncertainty than security,” says Halabe. He recounts how he shuttered his lumber business for most of January after Templar extortion demands rose sixfold to $2,500 a month.
“What happens when the federal government leaves?” he asks.
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The dominance of the Templars and other criminal gangs over large corners of Mexico has vexed President Enrique Peña Nieto through his first 14 months in office. The issue has hobbled his efforts to change the country’s image from drug war slaughterhouse to oil-pumping dynamo.
He made a forceful economic pitch Wednesday afternoon in a brief meeting with President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Peña Nieto long downplayed the gang threat. He was forced to change course in recent months, as the illegally armed vigilante militias captured towns surrounding Apatzingan and vowed to invade the city to free it from the Templars.
The president in mid-January dispatched 10,000 federal police and troops to the region and named a special envoy to supplant Michoacan state’s governor. He offered vigilantes uniforms and paying jobs within rural and town police forces.
Order was restored in Apatzingan and outlying communities, with scarcely a shot fired.
“The government realized that it couldn't handle things and helped us more,” says “Comandante Cinco” (Commander Five), in charge of the several hundred militia gunmen camped on the edges of Apatzingan.
"We’re glad that there wasn’t anyone killed, that blood wasn’t spilled," he adds.
“What we want is for the Templars to simply get out of here."
Michoacan’s gangs have changed names, bosses and rackets over the years. Bought-off or terrified local and state officials did little or nothing to prevent them from strengthening their hold on the western Mexican state, security analysts say.
The Templars emerged three years ago from a split within La Familia Michoacana, a violent organization that was cobbled together last decade from smaller bands.
Both cartels initially vowed to protect Michoacan’s people from extortion, kidnapping and other abuses by out-of-state gangs. Both ended up extorting, kidnapping and murdering people here, locals and officials say.
The Templars and La Familia both produce meth and marijuana for sale to consumers in the United States and Mexico, according to officials in Washington and Mexico.
The Templars went even further than their predecessors, many townspeople say: raping schoolgirls, confiscating lime and avocado groves, driving farmers and merchants out of business with impossible extortion demands.
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Encouraged by business leaders, citizens decided to stand up to the Templars where officials wouldn’t.
Some, including Mexico's attorney general, have alleged the citizen militias — which call themselves “autodefensas,” or self-defense forces — are backed and armed by other criminal gangs. Militia leaders vehemently deny those allegations.
Either way, they made impressive gains. As the militias claimed dozens of communities, the Templar hold crumbled.
“That’s the self-defense [militias'] greatest success,” said Jaime Rivera, a political science professor at Michoacan’s state university. “They broke the fear and turned it back on the Templars.”
Yet hundreds, perhaps thousands of Templar gunmen remain at large somewhere in Michoacan. They still control politicians and police forces, experts say. Their grip has weakened but may not be entirely released.
“It scares me to talk about these things,” says Gonzalo Zaragoza, an office supply merchant in Apatzingan.
He was recently accused of collaborating with the militias on a Facebook page he said was Templar-linked.
He reckons, “Although supposedly they’re no longer here, they still are.”
The Templars have been know to retaliate against their rivals when the opportunity arises. Victims have been strung up, gunned down or decapitated. Scores of bodies have been uncovered in recent months from clandestine graves in northern parts of the state controlled by the rival Zetas gang.
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Not surprisingly, the militias are deflecting government demands to disarm. They’re keeping assault rifles and other weapons mostly out of sight, but close at hand.
As many as 600 militia members so far have signed up to become uniformed rural and city police officers, officials say. But the process will be tricky and slow: Recruits have to be vetted, trained, assigned and kept in line.
“The fact that we’ve made a deal with the government doesn’t mean we are going to be tied down,” militia spokesman Estanislao Beltran, called “Papa Smurf,” says of the police arrangement. “If we see it’s beneficial and advances the struggle, all right. If not, we'll have to find another alternative.”
Still, there are hundreds more well-armed vigilantes who somehow will have to be demobilized.
Will the menial jobs available to many of the young militiamen satisfy them after they've tasted respect, power and victory in the anti-Templar campaign? Or, with the drug trade untouched, could some of today’s vigilantes become tomorrow's lords of vice?
Michoacan’s criminal circle might well remain unbroken.
“It's calm right now but this is going to continue,” says Fidencio Urtiz, 36, a grade school principal and top elected leader in a poor village near Apatzingan that militiamen seized last week. “Ask children what they want to be when they grow up and they say gangsters.”
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