TEPALCATEPEC, Mexico – For lime grower Hipolito Mora, it was time to organize and pick up arms when a packing company controlled by a brutal drug cartel refused to buy his fruit. For Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez, it was seeing civilians forced to fight back with their own guns that made him speak out. For Leticia, a lime picker too afraid of retribution to give her last name, it was the day she saw a taxi driver kidnapped in front of his two young children that persuaded her to join those taking the law into their own hands.
In Mexico, they call it “the drop that makes the glass overflow,” and it came at different points for the people living for years in fear of the brutal Knights Templar in the western Valley of Apatzingan, an emerald-green tapestry of orchards bordered by blue-gray peaks.
“We lived in bondage, threatened by organized crime,” said Leticia, 40, who ekes out a living picking fruit and selling chicken on the side. “They wanted to treat people like animals.”
Eight months after locals formed self-defense groups, they say they are free of the cartel in six municipalities of the Tierra Caliente, or “Hot Land,” which earned its moniker for the scorching weather but whose name has also come to signify criminal activity. What’s more, the self-defense group leaders, who are clearly breaking Mexican law by picking up military-style arms to fight criminals, say the federal government is no longer arresting them, but recruiting them to help federal forces identify cartel members.
The Mexican government, which over seven years has repeatedly sent troops and federal police into the area without success, has reached its own limit: an Oct. 27 attack by alleged cartel agents on power distribution plants and electrical substations in 14 towns and cities. At least 400,000 people were left in the dark.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam arrived by helicopter to the ranch town of Tepalcatepec two days later to meet with self-defense group leaders.
“The attorney general came with two army generals to speak to me and said ‘We’ve come to help. What do you want us to do?’ ” said Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, self-defense group leader in Tepacaltepec, speaking over breakfast in a grove of fat mango trees, his two-way radio crackling with movements of his patrols.
He said the government promised operations in major cities around the state. Federal security spokesman Eduardo Sanchez did not respond to several requests for comment about the government’s cooperation.
The self-defense groups started small, with just a few dozen civilians from two communities: lime pickers, ranchers and business owners who began patrolling the streets, setting up roadblocks and ambushing the Knights Templar as the drug men roamed with their heavy artillery and grand SUVs.
The ragtag groups now claim several thousand members in a valley of more than 300,000 people, competing with the cartel in raw numbers if not firepower.
In the Valley of Apatzingan, daily life continues under the watch of military helicopters and around sandbags marking dozens of checkpoints.
It’s a fragile peace.