Nation & World

Mexican vigilantes say they’ll keep weapons till cartel bosses are arrested

A week after the federal government seized security functions in troubled Michoacan state, the organized crime group wreaking havoc in the state has gone to ground.

But the top three leaders of the Knights Templar gang remain at large, and the armed citizens militia that’s put the gang on the run says it won’t give up its weapons until the leaders are caught.

“If they don’t capture these people, then we will remain armed,” said Hipolito Mora, one of the founders of the vigilante movement that began 11 months ago and has occupied much of the state where the Knights Templar had been active.

Mora spoke to reporters in an open-air shed one day last week, and his message wasn’t lost on Mexican federal officials. National Public Safety System Secretary Monte Rubido acknowledged in a news conference Sunday that smashing the Templar leadership is a top priority and that “it is essential . . . that the visible leaders of the criminal groups be arrested.”

Federal authorities dispatched hundreds of police officers and soldiers to Michoacan last week after the citizen militias surrounded Apatzingan, the headquarters of the Knights Templar, and threatened to seize the town. Officials said they were concerned that any confrontation between the groups would cost scores of lives.

But Mora said the self-defense forces, as the vigilantes prefer to be called, had grown strong enough that they could prevail in battle with the Templars and would be ready to do the job if the federal forces couldn’t.

When one reporter characterized the federal intervention as the last chance for the government to impose order, Mora did not demur. “I have no doubt that we will win,” he said.

The three top Templar leaders are thought to be Nazario Moreno (El Chayo), Enrique Plancarte (El Kike) and Servando Gomez (La Tuta).

In Apatzingan, the commercial hub and onetime stronghold of the Knights Templar, business owners are uncertain whether the federal campaign can produce arrests of any significance.

“They catch a stray cat and put it up as a grand capo,” scoffed Gonzalo Zaragoza, the secretary of the local branch of the Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism of Mexico. “Perhaps they want the national and foreign media to see them as dealing hard blows.”

Federal efforts to impose order in Michoacan have rarely brought success. In a headline-grabbing blow, investigators arrested 10 mayors in the state in May 2009 on charges of working for drug smugglers. But the prosecutions collapsed, and all charges were dismissed.

Templar bosses in Michoacan have been uncommonly open about their identities. They post YouTube videos that show their faces and have been seen in public in several towns. Journalists have located several mansions that belong to them in the towns of Nueva Italia, Antunez and Paracuaro.

The arrival of caravans of federal police to the region hasn’t stopped all gang-related violence.

Zaragoza said that at least 10 businesses had been firebombed or torched by gangsters in a week in Apatzingan, “despite there being 10,000 federal police or soldiers.” Some 160 of the 850 businesses in his chamber shut down last year, unable to withstand the pressure of extortion from the cartel, he added.

Rubido, the National Public Safety System secretary, said Sunday in a statement that 38 people had been arrested in the past week, and that one of them, 37-year-old Jesus Vasquez Macias, was “one of the leaders who generates the most violence” within the Templars.

But vigilante spokesman Estanislao Beltran said Vasquez was a hit man for the Templars, not a leader.

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