APATZINGÁN, Mexico -- Tortilla mills stopped production for several
days recently, denying locals the most basic of daily staples. Taxi
drivers refused to take fares on the Day of the Dead, leaving many
people unable to attend annual graveyard vigils.
Even gas stations regularly run out of gasoline because tanker trucks won't come in.
drug gangs have made life intolerable for years for the law-abiding
citizens in Tierra Caliente, or Hot Earth, a rugged region 300 miles
west of Mexico City. But now they are fighting back by taking the law
into their own hands and are being joined in their armed insurgency by
"This is like a cancer in our society," says Catholic Bishop Miguel Patiño Velázquez of Apatzingan.
is one of many Catholic priests who don't discourage their parishioners
from arming themselves to put an end to criminal groups accused of
everything from running extortion rackets to kidnapping people for
ransom to making methamphetamine.
The bishop blasted the security situation in an Oct. 15 open letter
and assailed the Mexican government for leaving his parishioners at the
mercy of criminals in his home state of Michaocán.
He has publicly
blamed the local police and officials as corrupt, taking bribes instead
of doing their jobs to protect people. He says he has received death
His outcry comes as Mexico, under President Enrique
Peña Nieto, has been accused of softening its law enforcement efforts
against the drug cartels that have taken over some provinces of Mexico
and operated with impunity for years.
Nieto said he would bring a
new strategy to Mexico's struggle with organized crime - one that
de-emphasized the targeting of drug kingpins and focused on reducing
homicides, extortion cases and kidnappings.
And he claims success
over his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. The Nieto administration reports
that one year into his presidency, the homicide rate has dropped by 18%
(though it says there has been a 35% increase in kidnappings). It also
points to the arrest of two major leaders of the Zeta and Gulf cartels
But many analysts dispute the claim that crime is down and question whether the Nieto administration is fudging statistics.
Molloy, a specialist on Latin America at the New Mexico State
University Library in Las Cruces, N.M., says the data the government
uses conflicts with crime reports amassed by Mexico's Executive
Secretariat of Public Security, according to a study published in the
James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
The public security agency data show an average of 1,555 intentional
homicides per month since Nieto took office - or about 52 people per day
- which is slightly less than the average across all six years of the
Despite claims that crime is being
subdued, Mexico continues to be a place "where violent conflict in the
past six years has killed more than 135,000 people and caused the
disappearances of at least 25,000 people," Molloy says.
of Tierra Caliente seem well aware of that. Their ordeal is a rude
reminder of the difficulties in dismantling drug cartels and organized
crime that Patino says has left Michaocán with "all the characteristics
of a failed state."
Vigilante groups here have armed themselves
and formed "community police" forces to stop the violence. It has
worked, say locals, but the gangs are trying to retake control by making
life hard in a sort of modern-day siege. They are threatening
businesses if they don't close, bribing officials to keep quiet and
frightening suppliers away, people and priests say.
The killings, threats and corruption often go unreported in the media
because journalists are threatened with death if they write about it,
Father Andrés Larios makes no apologies for assisting
the vigilantes, such as when he lets them ring the church bells in times
of emergency and to warn people of danger.
"They've taken their money, raped their women, done whatever they want," he says of the cartels. "This is a savage place."
some accuse the vigilantes of having unclean hands. Among the cartels
they have been trying to keep out is the Knights Templar, a
quasi-religious cartel controlling much of the crime in the region.
Earlier this year the state government accused vigilantes of teaming
with a rival to the Knights Templar cartel - the Jalisco New Generation
cartel - to keep the Knights Templar out.
There have been several
bouts of violence between the two cartels recently, and in retaliation
the Knights Templar are accused of taking it out on the townspeople. A
wave of attacks on 18 electrical substations and four Pemex gasoline
stations in Apatzingán have been blamed on the cartel.
"They have this military and organizational ability ... that is able to
put the state in the condition that it is now," Miguel Ángel Sánchez,
content director of Michoacán news agency Quadratín, says of the Knights
The priests in the Diocese of Apatzingán admit
that outside cartels have offered assistance. But they say it has been
refused because people here are sick of all cartels.
"They'll silence you, send you packing (or even) kill you because you speak out," Patino says.
federal government has sent more soldiers recently to Michoacán. The
army also assumed policing duties this month in the port city of Lázaro
Cárdenas in Michoacán, where cartels allegedly smuggle in chemicals for
But the priests say the government help is not enough. The people must stand up for themselves.
"This is (the vigilantes) last resort," Father Larios said.