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

Visits by Mexicans in the States to their Tierra Caliente hometowns began being canceled because of the Templarios' violence. Sick and dying parents went unvisited by children afraid of being killed.

"My father is seriously ill and not doing well," says another Santa Ana resident who hails from the rancho of Peribán. "I'm afraid to visit him because of the fighting. The only thing I can do is call him frequently and hope for the best."

Peribán is north of Buenavista Tomatlán. Last year, a politician was killed there after criticizing the cartel, and 10 local people were killed in an ambush while returning from a meeting with authorities about the drug gang. The cartel's presence was everywhere, including the local police forces. Many believed the drug ring was capable of monitoring telephone calls.

Hans-Máximo Musielik/Courtesy Vice Mexico
A self-defense member in the aftermath of a confrontation with Los Caballeros Templarios during the takeover of Parácuaro, Michoacán
Hans-Máximo Musielik/Courtesy Vice Mexico
A self-defense member in the aftermath of a confrontation with Los Caballeros Templarios during the takeover of Parácuaro, Michoacán

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"The violence is tearing our community apart, but you don't discuss it when you call home," says the man from Peribán. "You don't know who else could be listening, so you talk about work, family or the weather."

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Tierra Caliente and its residents abroad couldn't count on any part of Mexican law enforcement for help. Local and state police are notorious for their close ties to the cartels; the Mexican Army and federal government seemed powerless to act. And when residents of Tierra Caliente finally realized this, they rose up and began to fight.

The first village credited as retaliating against the Templarios was the indigenous community of Cherán, located in the Michoacán mountains north of Tierra Caliente and famous for its forests that serve as the breeding ground for the monarch butterfly. Most of the population there is Purépecha, and they were subject to the simultaneous triple blow of illegal logging, the Templarios and an apathetic government. Starting in 2011, the village engaged in skirmishes with La Familia and, following its demise, the Templarios. In February 2013, women in Cherán began organizing armed community-watch groups that successfully pushed the cartels out. The move shocked a Mexican nation inured to decades of nasty narco battles—and galvanized the rest of Michoacán.

Peasants, lime pickers, ranchers, shop owners, teachers and other everyday people found inspiration in Cherán and took matters into their own hands. People began occupying municipal buildings and arresting local police officers they suspected of being in the Templarios' employ. Soon, bunkers made from fertilizer bags began appearing at vigilante-manned checkpoints on roads leading in and out of the towns. The bags were also used to prepare defensive positions in the towns. Autodefensas armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles began patrolling the highways and towns, looking for a fight with Templario soldados.

They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. The drug lords and their soldiers were sent running for their lives, some promising to return and mete out vengeance; by last month, the autodefensas were on the march to the Templarios' home base of Apatzingán. Peasant men and teenage combatants were photographed enjoying themselves inside the opulent homes of Templarios leaders, including Enrique Plancarte "El Kike" Solis, whose taste for interior design was monochromatic. Almost everything in his home—furniture, accessories, walls—was a shade of red on white. His pink-and-white bedroom, including a pink bed, was fodder for Mexican newspapers, which ran photos with headlines such as "This Is How El Kike Lived."

Until late last year, little was known in the United States about the bloody clashes between the defense groups and the Templarios. Recent reports in the Mexican media have claimed that a San Jose-based group called Voluntarios de la Comunidad (Volunteers of the Community) has held fund-raisers for the autodefensas in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and other California cities with a large michoacano presence. However, no one will openly admit such events have happened in Santa Ana. Several local men say they have increased the amount of money they send home every month during the timeof "las cosas." Ostensibly, the funds are supposed to be used for food and other living expenses—but if the money is also being used to purchase arms and ammunition . . . well, the men cannot say.

What is undisputed is that former Santa Ana residents have joined the autodefensas. The Los Angeles Times identified one of the fighters as Adolfo Silva, who attended Century High School and joined after the Templarios kidnapped his cousin. In an interview with GlobalPost.com, Silva seemed straight out of Hollywood central casting for American Me (his brother, the Times reported, was a member of the city's Lopers gang), with his clipped English, short hair and bravado. "We're here to defend the people. They tell us whatever they need," he told an interviewer. Then, speaking of the Templarios, Silva said, "They do a lot of bad stuff; we don't even know how come they be—how they are like that."

A man who grew up near Nueva Italia, a town south of Apatzingán, and has lived in Orange County for almost 40 years says the narco leaders' lavish lifestyles was shocking for all the poverty in the Tierra Caliente. "These are men with no education," he says. "They are ignorant but have made themselves rich by exploiting the same people that they come from."

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