By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
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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.
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.
* * *
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 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.
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.
"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."
* * *
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."
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."
* * *
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.
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.
Even though the autodefensas appear to have beaten the Templarios and the government, it still isn't enough to satisfy the michoacanos in Santa Ana.
"Why doesn't the U.S. send the American military to Michoacán and clean up the place?" asks one man. "We send soldiers to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why not Michoacán?"
His friends nod in agreement, serious. It is an alternative that has been debated among them, and they see U.S. intervention as the only solution for peace in Tierra Caliente.
The suggestion is outlandish, of course. Their naivete and frustration bring to mind the Mexicans' traditional lament for their country: So far from God and so close to the United States. So all they can do is fight for the Hot Land.