When Enrique Peña Nieto assumed office as president of Mexico in 2012, he did not want to talk about the drug war. He had staked his candidacy on promises of reform; on the possibility of a Mexico freed from depictions in the international press of a nation defined by violence. That was an attractive idea. After all, the loss of life under Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who sent the military into the streets to do battle with organized crime, had been historic, with even the most conservative estimates of the dead and disappeared soaring well into the six-figure range. Peña Nieto avoided references to a sweeping, militarized campaign against drug cartels — the defining feature of Calderón’s tenure — instead favoring more generalized references to public security.
Unfortunately, avoiding the subject didn’t make it go away. Within two years, Mexican security forces at all levels would be implicated in a series of grisly crimes. The most infamous was a coordinated and violent attack on a group of rural college students in September 2014; 43 of the students were disappeared during the assault — their fates remain unknown. The students’ disappearance — and the state’s failure to find them — became emblematic of a broken government. It was not, however, the first sign of trouble on the horizon for Peña Nieto’s newly installed government.
An insurgency was brewing in Mexico from the moment the young president took office, the culmination of decades’ worth of institutional abandonment in a region known as the Hot Land in the state of Michoacán. At the center of the storm was a lime grower named Hipólito Mora Chávez, who had organized an armed uprising against a cultish drug cartel called Los Caballeros Templarios — the Knights Templar. The spark Mora ignited, soon fanned by a charismatic doctor from a neighboring town, drew thousands of recruits during Peña Nieto’s first year, capturing Mexico’s imagination and headlines around the world. They called themselves autodefensas, self-defense groups, and they were clearing town after town of Templarios through 2013, appearing to succeed where millions of drug-war dollars had fallen short after seven bloody years.
Like other nations that have wrestled with the rise of irregular armed groups taking and holding land, Peña Nieto’s government employed a strategy of divide and conquer, leveraging co-optation to serve its own needs while leaving the roots of the problem largely untouched. Once engaged, the federal government deputized and deployed autodefensa elements to root out and destroy a criminal group that had been a thorn in its side for years — regardless of clear evidence of criminal links within those elements. Those within the movement who failed to go along with the program were jailed or turned up dead, including some of the best-known autodefensa leaders.
For Mora, the man credited with starting it all, the demise of the movement would spell the end of life as he knew it and result in a profound personal loss.
Last December, hoping to better understand the autodefensa uprising, I traveled to Michoacán to interview Mora. What emerged from my conversations with the embattled commander — as well as other vigilantes, reporters, and human rights advocates across the state — is a complex picture of an international drug war that is nonetheless profoundly local; a conflict simultaneously fueled by insatiable U.S. demand for drugs and multimillion-dollar counternarcotics programs that largely plays out in desperately neglected places, with regular people caught in the middle.
[Read Part 1 of the Hot Land.]
Although it ultimately served to quiet an embarrassing news story, the response from Mexican authorities to the deteriorating situation in the Hot Land was, in the beginning, disjointed and confused. In the early days of the uprising, residents in the town of La Ruana, where the movement began, reported that local military units taught the autodefensas how to man barricades and use their weapons. Less than two months later, nearly 50 autodefensa members in the town were arrested for illegal weapons possession and suspected links to the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel, a well-armed criminal group that had long sought control of Michoacán. That same month, Mora’s men engaged in a fierce gun battle with the cartel in which Mora claimed the military’s intervention prevented a “massacre.”
In May 2013, Peña Nieto directed thousands of federal forces to Michoacán in a bid restore order. It was the first major military move of his presidency and eerily reminiscent of Calderón’s initial salvo in his war on organized crime. Like Calderón before him, Peña Nieto’s efforts to tame the Hot Land by military means met with lackluster results. By the fall of 2013, the autodefensas were marching on Apatzingán, the Templarios’ seat of power in the Hot Land. Fearing the worst, the federal government accompanied the vigilantes into the city and stationed snipers on the roof of the municipal palace. Days later, suspected Templario forces responded to the autodefensas’ growing power by detonating bombs in nearly a dozen municipalities across the state.
By the end of the year, the autodefensas had evolved. Rather than local forces providing security in areas where they had communal or familial ties, residents described vigilantes increasingly made up of well-armed outsiders. In early 2014, the federal government deployed a new approach to quell the uprising. The president dispatched a trusted political operative to Michoacán named Alfredo Castillo Cervantes to extinguish the movement threatening to derail his neat narrative of a Mexico on the mend.
Castillo entered into a series of backroom conversations with the autodefensa leaders and ultimately brokered a deal. The vigilantes could go legit and become fuerzas rurales — rural defense corps — an all but forgotten type of government-backed militia set up in the 19th century to chase desperados in the countryside following the Mexican Revolution. They would have to register their names and weapons, and in exchange, the government would provide legal arms, uniforms, and modest payment on a temporary basis. On January 29, Castillo announced that a number of autodefensa leaders had signed on to the plan. By that time, however, it had become clear that many of the groups had allowed former cartel leaders into their ranks, and the admission process for the new force was, at best, incredibly lax. Background checks were virtually nonexistent.
The cartel members-turned-autodefensas were known as arrepentidos — the repentant ones. Mora, who saw the former criminals as irredeemable, insists that he rejected such integration. He appears to have been in the minority. The shadier elements of the autodefensas offered certain advantages to the state, including intelligence capabilities and familiarity with local criminal structures. With the establishment of the fuerzas rurales, Castillo offered state legitimacy to a host of unsavory arrepentido characters. A specialized government-backed task force for hunting Templarios known as G250, for example, was led by Nicolás Sierra Santana, alias El Gordo, the head of a meth-trafficking cartel from Apatzingán called Los Viagras.
“That is not a secret,” said Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence analyst under Calderón who now runs the national security news website El Daily Post in Mexico City. “There is a lot of evidence the government knew that Los Viagras were criminals.” Hope added, “Certainly, [Castillo] brought in some order where there was none. But this is the thing: He tried to fix Michoacán by means of ad hoc agreements with autodefensas, this carrot-and-stick policy vis-à-vis the autodefensa leaders.”
“Where Castillo failed was in creating an institutional framework to pacify the state,” Hope said. “He thought he could do it by means of backroom politics.”
The creation of the fuerzas rurales was followed by a period of intensive joint operations involving the newly authorized militias and the state in which hundreds of suspected Templarios were reportedly killed or captured. Just two months later, the government announced a major score: El Chayo, the Templarios’ legendary leader, had been killed. This time it was for real. The authorities claimed the diligent work of elite Marines located the drug lord. Others said autodefensa intelligence led to his whereabouts and that in the end, El Chayo’s bodyguards turned on him in exchange for protection. Whatever the truth may be, the triumph was short-lived; news of El Chayo’s demise was soon eclipsed by more pressing developments in Mora’s corner of the Hot Land.
On March 9, 2014, authorities discovered a pair of charred corpses in the bed of a pickup truck not far from Mora’s hometown of La Ruana. One of the dead men was Rafael Sánchez Moreno, a 52-year-old described in news reports as a prominent figure in the local lime business. Sánchez was involved in the creation of La Ruana’s self-defense group but had a falling out with Mora. Estranged from the La Ruana clique, Sánchez linked up with the militia in next-door Buenavista. That group was led by Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, known as El Americano because of his dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship.
The Washington Post described Torres as an “El Paso car salesman” in his 30s who had been kidnapped during a 2012 vacation to Michoacán and held captive until his family paid the unusually high ransom of $150,000. The ordeal reportedly inspired him to take up arms with the autodefensas in 2013. Upon joining the movement, Torres became a leading figure in a group known as H3, one of the shock troop forces Castillo relied on to clear towns.
Sánchez, the rancher found incinerated in the pickup, had been a major supporter of El Americano’s efforts. In the weeks leading up to his murder, he and Mora had been locked in an increasingly acrimonious land dispute, with Sánchez accusing Mora of refusing to return several hundred acres of property he had seized. When Sánchez turned up dead, Torres immediately suspected Mora, who in turn accused Torres of maintaining criminal ties. Hundreds of H3 members flooded La Ruana, and the federal government was forced to extract Mora by helicopter. “I fought for my town and for my town I will die,” Mora told the press before being airlifted out of town under the cover of darkness. The following day, Mora was placed under arrest for the Sánchez murder. When he was released two months later due to lack of evidence, Mora said at a press conference that his incarceration “probably saved my life, as there was no security where I was.”
Mora’s release came at a crucial time for the autodefensas. Under Castillo, a number of the movement’s leaders had agreed to disarm and join the fuerzas rurales. A week after he was released, Mora and his men agreed to the plan. In joining with the government-backed militias, Mora broke with José Manuel Mireles Valverde, the famed doctor and autodefensa leader — and Mora’s ally since the movement began. While Mora was behind bars, Mireles had faced increasing pressure from the state to lay down his arms. The Doctor resisted, treating the government’s offer with skepticism, arguing that the autodefensas provided crucial security for the people of Michoacán, and pointing out that it made little sense for his men to lay down their arms when the Hot Land’s criminal elements had not been forced to do the same. When asked why he signed on to the government deal, Mora said he simply needed the weapons. “I have a lot of enemies,” he explained. He added that he only once wore the uniform the government provided, on the day it was given to him.
In a detailed report published by InSight Crime, a close tracker of Latin American security issues, and the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Mexican government’s quasi-formalization deal with the autodefensas was described as a classic PRI “bait and switch” strategy. Through Castillo, the president’s hand-picked problem solver, the Peña Nieto government managed to address the politically unwelcome optics of unaccountable irregular forces running around Michoacán with guns by folding them into a wing of the state, then used those forces to address a longstanding problem — the Templarios’ presence in Michoacán. Those who resisted the deal were dispensed with. Mireles appeared to be the prime example. On June 27, 2014, he was arrested in a joint operation carried out by the state attorney general’s office, federal police, and the military, along with more than 80 of his supporters. The Doctor was charged with illegal weapons possession. He remains in prison.
If Mora believed that siding with the government would ensure security for him or his family, he was gravely mistaken. His enemy, El Americano, had signed on to the deal as well. Mora claims that he raised concerns about Torres’s alleged criminal links with Castillo. Rather than doing anything about it, Mora said Castillo aligned himself with Torres and H3. “Castillo never wanted to detain them,” Mora said. As 2014 wore on, the animosity between Mora and El Americano only grew worse. By winter, it reached the breaking point.
Most days, the streets of La Ruana have a steady rhythm. Men and women on motorbikes weave their way around stray dogs. Residents sit in lawn chairs outside the town’s colorful shops and sloping shacks, watching as the traffic passes. By the end of 2014, the roads had become increasingly crowded with convoys carrying loads of armed men. Many of the vehicles were adorned with large decals that read “H3” — El Americano’s crew. According to Mora, H3 members would pass through town drunk and high, brandishing their high-powered weapons and harassing his men. In mid-December, he said, they began issuing direct threats. “Get ready,” they’d say. “Because you are going to die.”
On December 16, 2014, the tensions finally boiled over. Mora and his men were manning a barricade at a crossroads on the edge of town. They had been monitoring H3’s radio frequency when they overheard a call to arms: Bring all of your weapons right now. We’re going to kill this son of a bitch. According to Mora, El Americano’s convoy was made up of 200 to 300 gunmen carrying grenade launchers and .50-caliber rifles. Once at the barricade, the members of H3 dismounted their trucks. Rocks were thrown. Mora said a fight broke out between two men from each side.
Shaky video clips of what unfolded eventually made it to YouTube. Young men can be seen in the beds of the trucks on their way to the confrontation, their rifles visible against the sky, wind whipping past them as residents on the sidewalk look on. The men curse and whoop with excitement. The shooting begins with three rounds fired in quick succession. Seconds later, the response comes, a rising cacophony of gunfire that reverberates like a heavy hailstorm battering a tin roof. Men huddle near the wheel wells of trucks clustered in a two-lane road outside a weathered factory, seeking shelter from the flying lead. Some lie prone on the pavement. Others scream.
Mora estimated that the gunfire lasted nearly two hours. When it finally subsided, he pulled out his cellphone and dialed his son Manuel’s number — Mora’s right-hand man, Manuel had been across the street when the shooting began. The line rang and rang without answer. “He always answers on the first call,” Mora said. He tried again — still nothing. Mora turned to his comrades, one of whom assured him that he had just spoken to Manuel by radio. Mora called again; still no answer. Now certain Manuel was dead, Mora broke down. “I want to see him,” he told his men.
The gunfight killed 11 people: five from Mora’s side, six from H3. At Manuel’s funeral the following week, Mora’s men fired their rifles into the air while soldiers and federal police kept guard in the street. Manuel’s widow stood over her husband’s casket in a black T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a bun, eyes closed in the scorching afternoon sun. Mora cried, describing El Americano as “the person I hate most in the world.”
A framed portrait of Manuel wearing a baseball cap sits on a shelf in Mora’s living room. When we spoke in December, Mora recounted a conversation he and his son once had in that room. Some of their men had just been jailed and Manuel, himself a married father of three young girls, was imploring his father to put down his arms. “Get out of this,” Manuel said. “They’re going to kill you.” Manuel took off his rosary and placed it around his father’s neck. “Forgive me,” Mora told his son. “I’m not going to stop, no matter what happens.” Both crying, the two embraced. From then on, Mora said, Manuel rarely left his side.
“This was two years before the 16th of December,” Mora said. “Disgracefully, it wasn’t me that died.” He repeated the word again: “Disgracefully.”
When he finished the story, Mora disappeared into another room and returned carrying the black bulletproof vest Manuel was wearing when he died. “He was hit in the side,” Mora explained, as he turned the vest over, pointing to the holes in the fabric and the dents in the body armor. “This is the one I use now,” he said. “I have another vest here, but I use this one.” Mora’s eyes began to water; his voice got caught in his throat. “I take it wherever I go,” he said. For the rest of the conversation, Mora sat clutching the bullet-pocked piece of body armor, holding it close to his chest with both hands.
The truth can be slippery in the Hot Land, often contingent on unpacking generations of local disputes, hidden agendas, and self-serving narratives. In conversations with veteran reporters in Mexico, including local and international correspondents, Mora’s credibility was generally portrayed as far from perfect, but perhaps less compromised than others. The strongest confirmation of his version of events emerged in the form of a sweeping report published in November by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, known by its Spanish acronym, CNDH.
The report, built on almost 3,000 testimonies, including those of 316 autodefensa members and 639 state or municipal officials, offered a jarring history of the autodefensa movement and Mora’s role in it (the investigators interviewed 94 of Mora’s men). The investigators identified more than 3,000 direct and indirect victims of crimes in the years leading up to and including the autodefensa uprising, the result of the Hot Land and surrounding areas becoming “ungovernable territories where the law was only partially present, where society’s security was not guaranteed, where there was no vigilance on highways, where commercialization was scarce, educational institutions were deficient, and violence was generalized.”
Consistent with Mora’s claims, the CNDH investigators found that in the early days of the autodefensas, the majority of those participating in the movement were victims of Templario crimes who armed themselves with aging, low-caliber weapons to defend the communities they lived in. The report detailed how many of the autodefensa groups steadily evolved into territory-grabbing paramilitaries later backed by the state, often despite widespread allegations of criminal links. El Americano’s H3 crew was offered up as an example of the phenomenon.
Back in 2011, when Mora was first beginning to consider taking up arms, José Maria Cazares assumed the unenviable post of human rights director for the CNDH’s Michoacán office, which had partnered in publishing a book of children’s drawings depicting violence in the state that year. Maria remembers the book well. He described it in an interview in his office in Morelia, the state capital. It was his last day on the job, and Maria looked tired. Seated at a large wooden table, he said the children’s drawings reflected institutional failures — poverty, unemployment, and lack of education — two decades in the making. These conditions, in combination with an official disregard for safeguarding human rights, are what have allowed organized crime to fester, in turn giving rise to the autodefensa movement, he argued — and there’s every indication they will persist into the future.
“That’s what concerns us,” Maria said in a soft voice — that the sons and daughters of the students who illustrated the 2011 book might one day draw the same images of Michoacán. “Unfortunately, we have not been able to land on public policies that defend human rights,” Maria explained. “That’s the problem we’re faced with: the same scenario for the next 20 years.”
In the decade since the governments of Mexico and the U.S. launched their joint war on drug trafficking, scores of high-level traffickers have been killed or captured by authorities. Along the way, a staggering number of lives have been shattered. At times, the rate of killing in Mexico has outpaced Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Researchers have documented drops in the life expectancy of Mexican men as a result of the violence. On top of the deaths, the epidemic of disappearances in Mexico stemming from organized crime and criminalized security forces has been described as the worst in recent Latin American history. All the while, the more than $1.5 billion Washington has directed to Mexican counternarcotics and the estimated $79 billion put up by the Mexican government for safety and public security have made little meaningful impact on the amount of drugs flowing north. Mexican cartels, according to the DEA’s most recent annual assessment, continue to represent the most significant criminal threat to the U.S. — though, the DEA points out, the drugs primarily responsible for killing Americans don’t come from Mexico at all; they’re produced legally and locally in the form of prescription opioids.
Recent years have seen historic shifts in drug policy in the United States, including the legalization of marijuana in multiple states, an embrace of the notion that drug addiction is a public health problem, and a broadening of the discourse on drug prohibition itself. In April, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on “the world drug problem.” It was the first of its kind in nearly two decades. Unlike the last session, in 1998, which focused on building a “drug-free world,” this year’s session was celebrated as a symbol of a rising tide favoring a common sense, more empathetic approach to drugs and drug law reforms. The U.N. session followed years of demands from Latin American leaders for a break from the status quo. Together, the progress has led some to suggest optimistically that the war on drugs is, at long last, coming to an end.
On the ground in the Hot Land, however, the immense scope of the drug war — a phrase you rarely hear in towns like La Ruana — and the ongoing debate over the United States’ prohibitionist regime, can feel distant and far-removed. After all, drug trafficking has existed in Michoacán for decades. For much of that time, the violence was largely confined to those involved in the drug trade. It was only after the PRI’s fall from power in 2000 and Calderón’s declaration of war in 2006 — and the indispensable U.S. support that followed — that public security became the dominating worry of those living in the region. Even then, the trafficking of drugs was an afterthought compared to the mafia-style exploitation of local communities, human rights abuses committed by government security forces, and the corrosion of public offices. In other words, the drugs are one part of a broader problem: the collision of a massively lucrative black market with anemic public institutions.
While the Templarios were largely destroyed by the autodefensa movement, especially after the citizens’ groups joined with the state, myriad criminal groups have stepped in to take their place. Depending on the area in question, the Hot Land’s fuerzas rurales today appear either as under-resourced, under-trained quasi-police or narco warlords with uniforms.
Nayeli Noriega Espinoza, a TV reporter who covers crime in Apatzingán, said that at least three, possibly four narco groups are currently vying to fill the criminal vacuum opened up by the fall of the Templarios and the breakdown of the autodefensas. Before, she explained, there was at least a sense of order to the madness — people generally knew who was behind the local violence. Now, she said, “We don’t know who’s killing.”
“There are no autodefensas,” Noriega said. “Nobody is going to help us.”
Since Mora launched his anti-crime rebellion, his wife and teenage daughter have relocated to the U.S. The family, he said, is awaiting visa approvals for Manuel’s widow and Mora’s grandchildren. He has no plans to abandon his life in La Ruana, though. “I’m not afraid of them killing me,” he insisted, adding, “I have more reasons than ever not to be silent.” Mora said he has friends who tell him his struggle is futile. “I tell them the only way they will silence me is to kill me.”
Mora said he would “gladly” share what he has learned about the connections between organized crime and corrupt Mexican government officials — “because I want to end this mess with these sons of bitches” — but only in the presence of U.S. authorities. “I would only give the names to people with the DEA or the FBI,” he said. Naming names to a journalist would invite incredible risk with little likelihood for payoff, he said. “It’s one thing to speak generally and it’s another to give a name.” The individuals he has in mind are powerful, Mora explained, with access to serious guns and money. “They’ve bought a lot of people in Mexico,” he said. “I’ve already lost a son,” Mora added. “I’m not going to endanger others.”
When asked whether it had been worth it — the death of Manuel, the separation from his wife and children — Mora wrestled with his answer. “I would answer differently when we started this and I believed this was a fight between us and the Templarios,” he admitted. Back then, it seemed like a fight that could be won. “Now it’s more difficult,” he said. “We aren’t fighting against the Templarios anymore, or El Americano and his people. We’re fighting against the corrupt government, and that’s very difficult.”
“What people in the U.S. should know is that this is happening because of corruption within the government,” Mora emphasized. “I won’t generalize. There are some good people in government. But they are few.”
Late one afternoon, on our last day together, Mora offered a tour of his lime ranch. We climbed into his tank-like SUV, reinforced steel boxes encasing the headrests of the driver and front passenger seats, and set off for the property with a truckload of his men following behind.
Branches brushed against the vehicle’s bulletproof windows as it crawled over rolling hills. A ranchera song played on the radio. Mora complained about his need to have an armed contingent watching his back wherever he goes. “I have no privacy,” he said. It seemed to be a reminder of the ways in which his old life had disappeared. The ranch was another. These days, Mora explained, heading out to the property makes him nervous. Any hit man looking to make some cash could easily take advantage of the ranch’s wide-open spaces and put a bullet in him. Mora said he has an unshakeable sense he might meet his end there; dying on the land he started a movement to defend.
Mora pulled up to his family’s farmhouse, a single-story structure with white paint chipping off brick walls. He parked and walked over to a corral where a dark brown horse, a colt named Soldado, was stamping its hooves, waiting to be fed. Before the uprising began, Mora explained, the plan was to renovate the farmhouse and live there with his son and grandchildren. Now, it was out of the question. Not only is Manuel dead, the area is woefully exposed. Gesturing to a hill in the distance, the perfect place for an assassin to open fire on the property, Mora said the farmhouse is the place he fears most. He avoids it as best he can.
Night fell and Mora’s men prepared goat tacos for dinner. Mora told stories and cracked jokes. An anthem composed in honor of the autodefensas was played from the stereo of a pickup truck. The men gathered around to listen, their silhouettes illuminated in the vehicle’s headlights.
The next morning marked the one-year anniversary of the gun battle that took Manuel’s life. A Catholic mass was planned for 5 p.m. at the scene of the shootout. As the hour approached, nearly a dozen of Mora’s fighters gathered outside his home, relaxing in the shade on a mixed collection of lawn chairs. One snored loudly, his ball cap pulled low over his eyes and his rifle laid across his lap. Another stretched a balaclava over his face, set a flat black helmet on his head, and proceeded to snap selfies on his cellphone. Caught in the act, he flashed a thumbs-up.
Though the mood was lighthearted, there was uncertainty in the air — after all, El Americano lost his own share of men a year ago. There was no telling how his H3 crew might respond to the public ceremony. Amid their laughter and teasing, Mora’s men checked and re-checked the magazines on their guns. Mora arrived, his leather sandals replaced by dress shoes and his bulletproof vest nowhere in sight. His men loaded into two fuerza rural pickup trucks and an armored SUV. Mora led the convoy without a bodyguard, driving his granddaughters and Manuel’s widow. The little girls wore matching navy blue dresses with white trim.
Mora parked his vehicle at the scene of the shootout. On one side of the road was a small collection of bouquets, crosses, and signs bearing the names and birthdates of some of the men who died there. On the other side was a white concrete altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary; a wreath of pink flowers was draped over the virgin’s shoulders. Mora and his men assembled rows of white plastic chairs in front of the altar. People began to arrive, slowly at first, filling the chairs one by one. The sun was fierce and women shaded themselves under umbrellas. Mora took a seat in the middle of the arrangement. His daughter-in-law sat in the front row. The priest called the crowd to prayer.
Traffic continued to pass by on the two-lane road. Mora’s men lined up on either side of the street, weapons in hand. They watched nervously as two flashy Jeeps, identified as vehicles belonging to H3, cruised by repeatedly. The drivers, Mora’s men believed, were intentionally antagonizing the mourners. Thankfully, the vehicles didn’t stop. The mass let out as the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky over the Hot Land turned a fiery orange. Mora rose from his seat and returned his hat to his head. A small line of people formed to shake his hand and offer hugs. Mora obliged each one and then returned to his men.
Alejandro Guerrero Lara contributed to this story.