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A simple arch greets everyone who visits El Limón de la Luna, a village in the central Mexican state of Michoacán located in a region known as the Tierra Caliente—the Hot Land.
"Bienvenidos al Limon de la Luna" ("Welcome to the Lime of the Moon"), say the words welded to the curved metal frame, which stretches across a two-lane road leading into town. The lime trees that grow on both sides of the highway complement the greeting with their dark-green leaves that look almost black in the fading light of day. During the harvest season, the ripe fruits—so juicy they gave the town its ethereal name—get picked and sent across Mexico.
This bucolic entrance is a familiar sight to many residents in Santa Ana, the unofficial capital of the michoacano diaspora in Southern California for the past 40 years. El Limón nowadays only counts about 300 residents, a population that significantly increases come winter, when caravans of expats make the 28-hour drive from Orange County to their ancestral home for Christmas break. But last year, the rancho's message of goodwill attracted unwelcome guests who didn't arrive with the same intentions as homesick paisanos looking for a respite from the tough life of El Norte.
A drug cartel called Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar) had built a stronghold in Apatzingán, a city of about 90,000, gaining control through a campaign of terror and intimidation. The cartel's tentacles spread quickly to the smaller outlying ranchos, including El Limón de la Luna, where it became an occupying army that exerted its authority with ruthless efficiency. The proof is in a photo a group of michoacanos at a bar in Santa Ana discuss in hushed tones, one that illustrates the violence plaguing their families and friends still living there.
Some of the men helped to raise funds among limoneros in Orange County to pay for the arch. A man pulls up the photograph on his iPhone and shows it to me. Four people are hanging from the arch, each with hands tied in front, feet dangling above the asphalt road. One is a pregnant woman whose husband and 19-year-old sister were hanged next to her, suffering the same long, agonizing death at the hands of amateur hangmen. The fourth victim is a man whose pants are pulled down around his ankles and his underwear yanked down to mid-thigh. A newspaper is attached to his head, suggesting that someone did not like comments—probably critical of the Templarios—attributed to him in an article.
The decision to use the arch for the executions appeared to be deliberate. It seemed the narcos saw gallows humor in El Limón de la Luna's warm welcome to all and were sending a warning to others thinking about opposing them: You're welcome to challenge us—but we'll have the last laugh. It wouldn't be the first or last time the cartel had used the arch to send what Mexican papers call a narcomensaje, a narco message; there have been at least two other hangings from the arch, resulting in the murders of four men.
"So, you see, this is why we can't give you our real names if we talk to you," says the man with the iPhone, pointing to the photo. "If I say one wrong word and my name appears in the newspaper, it would be my family in Michoacán who will suffer. Do you think I want to see a picture of my father or brother hanging from the arch?"
Another man tells of family members who were stopped at a road checkpoint set up by cartel gunmen outside of Apatzingán and forced to pay a tax for owning a car. His friend adds that his brother's parked car was shot full of holes by Templarios "who were looking for a way to entertain themselves."
The details they provided were purposely sketchy. Giving too much information could identify their families in Michoacán, putting them at risk of retaliation by Templario sicarios (assassins). And giving too many details away would also expose the remarkable revolution these men and their fellow michoacanos have supported and instigated after deciding enough was enough.
In response to the Templarios' menace, thousands of residents in Tierra Caliente about a year ago began forming self-defense groups known as autodefensas, armed themselves and attacked the cartel, slowly driving narcos out of their towns in a series of bloody skirmishes that included house-to-house fighting. In los Estados Unidos, Michoacán natives began raising funds across the diaspora to help. Some even left their lives here to go back to Tierra Caliente and fight—not just men born and raised there, but even their Americanized children. It was an uprising that captured the hearts of Mexicans at home and abroad, is inspiring similar uprisings in other Mexican states shackled under narcoviolence, and embarrassed the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who recently tried to save face by announcing he was incorporating the autodefensas within the Mexican military.