Santa Ana Michoacanos Vs. the Templarios

Santa Ana residents are helping to wage a secret war against one of Mexico's most ruthless drug cartels—and they're winning

But the michoacano community in Santa Ana isn't celebrating just yet. Rumors abound about cartel gunmen and spies infiltrating the local community to gather names of people who criticize or denounce the Templarios. The New York Times reported that residents of Apatzingán are equally mistrustful, quoting a government official who said one does not know who the cartel's spies are until you cross them.

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When local michoacanos discuss the war at home, they speak in whispers about "los problemas" or "las cosas" (the things), reminiscent of the Irish referring to sectarian strife in Northern Ireland as "The Troubles." The word Templario is not mentioned in public, at least not above a whisper, lest it attract attention from one of the cartel's spies, whom michoacanos are convinced are everywhere.

A mother and her children from Churumuco make their way through the self-defense forces, who have just taken over the town
Hans-Máximo Musielik/Courtesy Vice Mexico
A mother and her children from Churumuco make their way through the self-defense forces, who have just taken over the town
An autodefensa points his AK-47 at the cross of the Knights Templar, taken from a roadside chapel over a rotunda dedicated to the founder of La Familia Michoacana
Hans-Máximo Musielik/Courtesy Vice Mexico
An autodefensa points his AK-47 at the cross of the Knights Templar, taken from a roadside chapel over a rotunda dedicated to the founder of La Familia Michoacana


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A man who was approached at his business waved me away and shook his head when I asked if I could talk to him about the war back home. He turned around and disappeared into a back room. After agreeing to talk to the Weekly, another man recanted after discussing his decision to go public with friends who also hail from Tierra Caliente.

"I've changed my mind and am asking you to please forget everything I've told you," he said in a frantic telephone call the following day. "My friends are right. If my name appears in the paper, there's no telling what the narcos could do. And they're also right that I'll be putting my wife and kids in harm's way if I speak out, even if we live here. I can be punished for speaking the truth."

The Michoacán grapevine says Templarios live in the San Bernardino County town of Hesperia and in Riverside County in Mira Loma and Riverside. They have also been spotted in Santa Ana, eating at restaurants favored by michoacanos.

"People know who they are. They may have changed their names, but they can't change their appearance and their past," says one man. Asked why he and the others do not report them to authorities, he says they are afraid of getting tagged as police informants and putting loved ones in Michoacán at risk of retribution by the cartel. Here, as in Tierra Caliente, the best way to avoid the Templarios' wrath is by taking the Sergeant Schultz approach, as another man says: "Miras, pero dices, 'Yo no vi.'" ("You look, but say, 'I saw nothing.'")

The men's fears are real. Authorities say that some of the methamphetamine smuggled into Southern California is controlled by the Templarios, and Michoacán is the source of the drug. In 2010, federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were investigating another cartel's activities in San Diego County and were surprised to learn about the Templarios. The investigation quickly branched out to target Templarios, too. After an almost two-year investigation called Operation Knight Stalker, agents secured 30 arrest warrants for members of La Familia Michoacana and Templario cartels throughout Southern California in December 2012. Arrests were made in Santa Ana, Buena Park, Riverside, Perris, Downey and Los Angeles, as well as in San Diego County and as far north as Manteca.

According to DEA Special Agent Amy Roderick, the investigation is ongoing. "These are dangerous and scary people," she says. "That's why we're going after them."

Various drug cartels have fought over Michoacán for much of the past decade, but the brutality practiced by the Templarios has shocked even Mexicans. They're a splinter group from La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacán Family), notorious for making beheadings a normal part of cartel mayhem. After the Mexican Federal Police killed La Familia's founders, group infighting resulted in the formation of the Templarios, who won their internecine battle in 2011 to become heir to La Familia's medieval initiation rituals and ultraviolence. After successfully taking over Michoacán's bigger cities, they turned their attention to Tierra Caliente. It's a geographic and cultural zone covering parts of Michoacán and the neighboring state of Guerrero rich in agriculture and natural resources. In the Mexican psyche, it plays the same role as the Ozarks or Appalachia does for Americans: a region of stunning beauty, crushing poverty and fiercely independent people.

The Templarios took on Tierra Caliente as the German Army did the Soviet Union in World War II, killing, burning and looting with impunity. Upon taking power, they began subjecting residents to increasing extortion. Protection money was demanded; when that wasn't enough, the Templarios began asking for taxes on everything from land to crops picked to even wages. They occupied avocado groves and lime orchards, forcing their owners to sell their farms for a pittance. Sexual assaults and human trafficking became common. Cartel members intimidated terrified residents into silence; those who dared speak out saw their cars and homes burned—if they were lucky.

The crisis reached a climax when the Templarios' chokehold on the towns and governing bodies in Tierra Caliente began to affect the area's main economic crops, limes and avocados, as well as threatened the livelihood of just about everybody living there. More crucial, the remittances by immigrants—long a lifeline that sustained long-abandoned ranchos such as El Limón de la Luna—dried up completely. Transfer services were suspected of being Templario fronts, so michoacanos in Santa Ana said they had to send money to Bancomer branches in faraway towns to ensure the safety of their loved ones; this precaution sometimes required two- or three-hour round trips. Even this was fraught with danger: Those who received money were immediately identified by Templarios as locals with connections to the United States. Kidnappings for ransom began to occur.

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