Eduardo Suarez stood on one foot as he playfully balanced his government-issued automatic rifle on the tip of his farmer’s boot, looking around at his companions for applause. All that greeted him was the horror of his commanding officer, a federal police sergeant whose job it is to turn Suarez and his friends from small-town vigilantes into an crack anti-cartel fighting unit.
Startled by the furious disapproval of his drill sergeant, Suarez lost his balance as the loaded weapon toppled heavily from his foot into the dust of the training ground with a thud. Grinning sheepishly at his friends, who rather than cheer him had dived for cover, Suarez picked up the M16 and flicked the safety catch on. He then turned to me and said, “We’re here to keep our public safe.”
Until last week, Suarez and the others had banded together as a local self-defense outfit struggling to protect their hometown of Tepalcatepec from the vicious Knights Templar cartel. They were now in the middle of basic training after being given guns and uniforms by the government of the crime-ravaged state government of Michoacán, becoming the latest addition to the Mexican government’s war on drugs: a state-sanctioned Fuerza Rural (Rural Force).
“The fight here is worse than ever,” Sergio Rosales, one of the original founders of the self-defense movement in the local farming community, told VICE News. “We’re certainly lacking in organization, but we’ve never had formal training. We simply started resisting the Templars and now it’s become official.”
Rosales had received multiple death threats in the past week.
“Yesterday they threatened me personally over Facebook,” he said. “They posted photos they’d taken of me and the rest of the squad in training, and promised we would all be dead within a month.”
The squad’s base of operations is a cattle barn on the outskirts of the town. With summer approaching, the cows have been replaced by an arsenal of handguns, automatic rifles, and tear gas canisters that are propped against the walls — in the absence of proper storage racks — and guarded by the group’s typist.
The new soldiers are being trained by federal police officers. Despite their evident inexperience, Adolfo Santos, the sergeant preparing them to take the fight beyond Tepalcatepec’s borders, sees no reason to doubt their potential as a cartel-stopping force.
“They’ve demonstrated that they have the willingness to tackle organized crime,” he said as he watched the unit practice patrol formations. “It will simply require their being turned into soldiers.”
The legitimization of Michoacán’s autodefensas has been a controversial issue in Mexico. While the government has decided to arm the village forces in the agricultural Tierra Caliente region, where the autodefensa movement started in early 2013, it has campaigned to disarm self-defense militias in other parts of the state.
The membership of autodefensa forces hasn’t been selective. Many self-defense group members are ex-cartel fighters, known as ‘perdonados’ (“the pardoned”). Authorities have arrested several cartel members posing as autodefensas within the state, and many claim that the integrity of the Fuerza Rural has already been compromised by an infiltration from the cartel it aims to destroy.
Dr. José Manuel Mireles, the former chief spokesman of the council of self-defense forces and leader of the Tepalcatepec autodefensas, remarked to a local radio station last week that the movement is “divided and infiltrated by criminals.”
Local autodefensa leader Estanislao Beltran — known as ‘Papa Smurf’ for his impressive facial hair — has been accused of forging a deal between the government and the Knights Templar to restore order to the area.
“Papa Smurf got rid of Dr. Mireles because he was unwilling to negotiate with people he believed had ties to the cartel,” a local named José Mariano Villalobo told VICE News. “But we’re here to make the region a better place to live. If we can achieve that, I’m not concerned about the politics.”
Residents of Tepalcatepec have seen a vast transformation in their quality of life since the autodefensas took up arms, and therefore see little reason to fear.
“It’s been an astonishing change,” shop owner Julian Alvarez told VICE News. “Today things are as they should be: what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, and no one comes to take anything away from you. That was almost unimaginable a year ago.”
He went on, “These boys will be great because they all have a personal interest in the wellbeing of the community, since they’re all local. The state and federal police forces don’t show the same level of commitment.”
Aside from the innumerable crucifixes that mark the site of cartel murders on the drive into town, Tepcalcatepec contrasts markedly with other towns in the Tierra Caliente region. There are quiet roads, open-air restaurants, and citizens calmly walking the streets after dark. The atmosphere of tension and fear felt in Apatzingán, about an hour away by car, is not present here.
As the Fuerza Rural prepares to patrol beyond the town’s borders, it intends for its example to encourage wider resistance against the cartel that has ruled their state with an iron fist for the past decade.
“The ultimate goal is a network of anti-cartel forces throughout the Michoacán villages,” Sergio Rosales said. “We’re here to help.”
Follow Alasdair Baverstock on Twitter: @alibaverstock
Photos by Alasdair Baverstock