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

The man makes a sweeping gesture with his right arm and points his forefinger at the other men standing at the bar with him. "We came here to better our lives by doing honest work," he says. "We earned what we have. Those people [drug lords] became rich through terror and murder."

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Michoacanos began arriving in Santa Ana in the early 1960s, the same time Easterners, Midwesterners, Appalachian hillbillies, tejanos and others began flooding Orange County and Southern California. Michoacanos had another thing in common with their fellow migrants: They were all part of a population boom and construction surge fueled by the aerospace industry. The others went to work in aircraft or defense plants or electronic firms; Michoacanos worked on farms, poured concrete, even picked the oranges that were still plentiful then and performed other backbreaking jobs handed out to newly arrived immigrants.

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 lucky ones worked as laborers in the construction industry—the pay was better—and helped to build the houses purchased by aircraft, defense and electronics workers. The really lucky ones joined the Laborers Local 652, hung out at its union hall off Chestnut Avenue, and earned relatively good wages and benefits. Many of the $40,000 dream homes built in central and north Orange County in the early 1970s were constructed in part by their blue-collar labor. When developers ran out of places to put up stucco and lay down concrete and asphalt, they turned to South County and took the michoacanos with them to build more expensive homes on ridges that rise above the ocean.

The first families settled around First Street and Grand Avenue in Santa Ana, often sharing homes or apartments with other michoacanos until they could get on their feet. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church near Second and Grand, where First Communions and weddings were celebrated, served as an anchor for the community. As their numbers grew, they began pushing west toward South Main Street, where the first shops and restaurants catering to michoacanos began appearing in the 1980s. Today, Santa Ana is awash with businesses bearing the names of the Michoacán towns that sent the most people: Zamora, Sahuayo, Uruápan, Pátzcuaro, Apatzingán, El Granjenal.

Over the years, michoacanos have been perhaps the most cohesive of the many Mexican immigrant communities who settled in Santa Ana, frequently organizing hometown benefit associations to press for political change in the city and to raise funds for municipal projects back in Michoacán the Mexican government could never seem to care to finish. But those ties are changing as assimilation becomes easier for the newer generations. The sons shun the starched Western-style shirts, broad silver belt buckles and cowboy boots worn by their fathers as their Sunday best. The community festivals held at the union and church halls are not as important as before, when they were also a forum for families to gossip about events taking place back home.

"Our children are Americans. Many haven't even been to Michoacán. To them, it's just a place where their parents came from," says the man from Peribán.

For all the negative stereotypes that many have of Mexican immigrants and Santa Ana, there is also one real fact: The children of michoacanos who arrived as unskilled laborers half a century ago are today working alongside the children of whites who arrived at the same time. They are also buying the homes their fathers helped to build. The elders, meanwhile, rue the violence that is tearing apart their homeland and worry about family members who stayed behind. However, there is near-universal support for the autodefensas who are taking back the towns, whether birthplaces or ancestral, from drug lords and disdain for the government and military who allowed Michoacán to teeter close to becoming a failed state.

Autodefensas have proven an embarrassment to Nieto and the Mexican Army. A ragtag group of embattled farmers have done in a few weeks what the military and law enforcement were unable, or unwilling, to accomplish in a decade. The fighters have their own uniform of sorts; white T-shirts emblazoned with "Grupo de Autodefensa" on the back. They've been hailed as heroes by almost all of Mexico, compared to the Zapatista uprising of the 1990s or the troops of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata from a century ago. An image of Michoacán's unofficial mascot—a Purépecha girl that's the logo for the La Michoacana ice cream company, now sketched with a shotgun, pistol and bandana covering her face—has gone viral, a commentary on the state of the times. Some critics have charged the autodefensas are nothing more than hired gunmen for another cartel looking to oust the Templarios. However, no evidence has backed up the allegations, which have been strongly denied by leaders of the local defense groups.

A few weeks ago, the military threatened to disarm the self-defense groups, who refused to give up their arms and pushed back with demands of their own: They would consider a compromise only if all of the Templarios' top leaders were arrested and a genuine rule of law without crooked cops is established in their towns. Late last month, the government reached a "temporary" agreement with the vigilantes in which the autodefensas would cooperate with government law-enforcement agencies and be absorbed into quasi-military units called the Rural Defense Corps. The units will be overseen by the Mexican Army, and the fighters would be allowed to keep their arms if they register them. The latter stipulation is significant because Mexico's gun laws do not permit citizens to own assault weapons.

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