In late September, members of Mexico’s Gendarmerie, the new federal police squad, made a quiet but significant discovery among the lime farms of the Tierra Caliente region in Michoacan state. Hidden among a clump of trees in the municipality of Buenavista were plastic barrels emitting the bittersweet smell of crystal meth, known by residents of this valley as “ice” or “hielo.”
Crystal meth has long been a specialty of Michoacan gangsters, with La Familia and Knights Templar being among the biggest traffickers of the drug to the United States, helping drive a speed scourge from California to Kentucky.
However, it is notable that this meth lab was discovered in territory that the Knights Templar had been purged from by local vigilantes, known as “self-defense squads” or “autodefensas.”
Buenavista includes the town of La Ruana, considered the birthplace of Michoacan’s self-defense movement. While indigenous community police had been formed in some communities such as Cheran, the main force of vigilantes began with an uprising in La Ruana in February 2013.
During the battles against the Templars this year, Buenavista was the center of the vigilante movement, alongside neighboring Tepalcatepec. The vigilantes officially disbanded on May 10, after many were incorporated into the new law enforcement squad of State Rural Police.
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The bust was not an isolated incident, but one of a series of labs found in Michoacan in the last month. Another three labs have been discovered around state capital Morelia, including one near the city’s fruit and vegetable market, with more than 100 plastic barrels alongside meth precursors.
These labs show that drug trafficking has returned to Michoacan after it had been greatly disrupted this year by the violent conflict between vigilantes and Templars, and an operation involving more than 12,000 federal police officers, soldiers and marines.
However, the Knights Templar itself has been decimated, with thousands of members killed or arrested. The only major leader on the loose is Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta” who has been running from an extensive manhunt.
With the Templars on the ropes, new groups have stepped into the trade, including gangsters linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) and traffickers who deserted the Templars, says a federal police commander working in Michoacan.
“Our mission goes on here. We might have smashed one cartel, but there are a lot of other traffickers out there,” said the commander, who is not authorized to give official statements.
Cartel Linked to Vigilantes?
The Jalisco Cartel has historic links to Michoacan, with its leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” being a native of the town of Aguililla in the state.
The cartel has been accused of various murders in Michoacan and on the state border with Jalisco. Most recently, six people were shot dead and dumped in the city of Uruapan alongside a note from the cartel. “People of Michoacan. We are here. We have come to save you. Attentively, New Generation Cartel,” read the message left in September.
The Jalisco Cartel New Generation was also accused of backing some elements of the vigilante movement.
Back in January, Federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam stated that he had evidence that many of the firearms used by the vigilantes had been provided by the rival Jalisco Cartel New Generation.
However, this did not stop the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto deputizing thousands of vigilantes into the new police force in May. The meth trade has reactivated under the watch of these new police.
The Rural State Force includes more than 25 different squads with up to 100 members each spread across different municipalities in Michoacan. Most of the members were former vigilantes, but some have been recruited straight into the new force.
Members of all ranks are paid about 9,000 pesos ($675) per month, although some complain they have yet to receive their salaries.
Reporting from various municipalities, the force could be seen to vary in their practices. Some, such as those in Tepalcatepec, appeared to use only government-issued weapons, such as AR15 rifles. But in some other municipalities, members still carried illegal weapons such as Kalashnikovs.
On some roads, the State Rural Force could be seen operating alongside vigilantes without uniforms.
Members of various squads said they focus on their own areas and sometimes distrust members of other groups.
“We keep order here in our town where you can see it’s quiet. We don’t work much with the other groups,” says Juventino Cisneros, Rural Force commander in Tepelcatepec. “We had concerns about some of the other self-defense squads, which was one of the reasons we wanted to become legalized.”
Vigilantism Still not Over
Other members of the vigilante movement make more concrete accusations that some elements work with gangsters.
Jorge Vazquez, a vigilante from Aguililla, released a video statement that certain Rural State Force are working with alleged traffickers known as Los Viagras, accused of being former Templars.
“The self-defense squads are still valid,” Vazquez says. “We have a mission to free our communities from cartels.”
One member of the rural force that has come under particular scrutiny is Luis Antonio Torres, alias “Simon El Americano,” who is from the Buenavista municipality where the lab was found. State prosecutors recently questioned Torres over a video in which he was allegedly seen with Templar boss Gomez, La Tuta. However, they clarified that it was not Torres in the footage and he returned to the force.
Despite the discovery of labs, Michoacan residents say there have been improvements in other areas since the collapse of the Templars.
Business owners in Tepalcatepec, Apatzingan and Morelia said they were no longer paying extortion quotas to gangsters. The Knights Templar had carried out largescale shakedowns on businesses large and small, which was one of the key detonators of the vigilante movement.
“The person who collected the quota for the Templars stopped coming around April time. That was a big relief,” says Jose Luis Mueller, who owns several taxis in Morelia. “To be honest, if the criminals want to traffic drugs that doesn’t bother me. It becomes a problem when they mess with your business.”
Ioan Grillo is a senior correspondent at GlobalPost and author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. You can read more of his work at: www.globalpost.com and www.ioangrillo.com.