It was winter in the pocket of Mexico known as Tierra Caliente, the Hot Land. The sky was cloudless and the sun’s rays were casting flickering reflections off the convoy coming into focus: two behemoth SUVs, one black, one silver, passengers invisible behind tinted windows, a police pickup bringing up the rear. The vehicles kicked up clouds of dust as they pulled to a stop. The doors swung open. Boots, shoes, and sandals connected with the dirt. More than half a dozen well-armed men, and one woman, stepped out.
They weren’t the most imposing gunslingers in the world. Most wore basic navy blue polo shirts with white screen-printed badges on the chest. Some were middle-aged with considerable bellies lapping over their belts. Still, their firepower — mostly AR-15 assault rifles — was considerable. Several wore bulletproof vests strapped with ammunition. One of the men, the fittest of the bunch, dressed in khaki cargo pants with dark wraparound sunglasses and a sidearm strapped to his hip, had the swagger of an American military contractor escorting some important diplomat in a foreign war.
The martial demeanor made sense. Guard duty was exactly what the group was doing. Their cargo stepped out of an armored Chevrolet: a short, stocky man, 60 years old, with a close-cropped gray beard and a white Panama hat. His name was Hipólito Mora Chávez. In 2013, he kicked off an armed citizens’ rebellion against a cult-like drug cartel in his home state of Michoacán, the geographic launching point on Mexico’s Pacific coast for much of the methamphetamine trafficked to the United States.
They called themselves autodefensas, self-defense groups. For a moment, their uprising was Mexico’s biggest story. For some, they symbolized a courageous effort on the part of ordinary citizens to accomplish what the government was unable or unwilling to do, dismantling a notorious criminal organization that had terrorized the Hot Land for years. For others, they were unaccountable vigilantes representing a dangerous slide into anarchic chaos.
More than three years into the fight, things are not looking good for Mora and his circle. Riven with the same criminal infiltration he sought to drive from the region and divided by a program of government co-optation, the movement Mora started is now a shadow of what it once was. In the winter of 2014, his son was gunned down in a ferocious shootout with members of a newly deputized force. Mora has been locked in a blood feud with the man he holds responsible ever since. He has come to see himself as a man deeply wronged by the state, left for dead amid a sea of enemies. One by one, he’s moved family members out of the country, distancing himself from those he loves most as he hunkers down at home, waiting for what comes next.
The autodefensas symbolized a courageous effort on the part of ordinary citizens to accomplish what the government was unable or unwilling to do.
As he approached, Mora showed no sign of the stress one might associate with being a front-line general on the losing side of Mexico’s drug war. The 9 mm pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans was discreetly hidden under his blue guayabera. Introductions were made at the tall iron gate that leads to his front door. From behind his wire-frame glasses, Mora made direct eye contact. He listened to our reasons for coming, nodded occasionally, and then smiled politely, extending his hand and inviting us inside.
Far away from the Hollywood intrigue and rock-star treatment spun up by January’s re-arrest of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in small towns and rural communities across Mexico, the drug war today often plays out in tragic local stories rarely acknowledged by the world at large. The Hot Land is one of those places. Over the course of three days, the embattled autodefensa leader described how his state fell under criminal control, how he started an armed movement in response, and how it all came apart.
The story Mora told was part of a broader narrative, relayed by other anti-cartel fighters, reporters in the Hot Land, and human rights investigators in the state capital during two weeks of interviews across Michoacán in early December. Together they provide a snapshot of the frustrations and complexities wrought by more than a decade of violence in one of Mexico’s toughest places, offering a window into the changing face of a conflict to which the United States is inextricably linked.
Surrounded by mountains, the Hot Land is a lowland stretch of central Mexico that includes southeast Michoacán and spills over into the northern reaches of the neighboring state of Guerrero. Five hundred miles from the U.S. border, the region’s rural communities and coastal cities are crucial junctures in the supply train of drugs flowing north. Michoacán produces tons of U.S.-bound methamphetamine, while Guerrero, which in recent years has served as Mexico’s largest producer of opium paste, plays a fundamental role in fueling the United States’ current heroin crisis. Throughout the region the splintered factions of once-sprawling cartels, fractured through years of infighting and battles with the federal government, have been reborn into warring constellations constantly vying for the most profitable turf.
The criminal groups that dominate the Hot Land engage in more than drug trafficking; they also feed off the local population through kidnapping and extortion. In some areas, their control of local political power is virtually absolute, and the line between the authorities and the criminals has all but vanished. It was in Iguala, a midsize city in Guerrero connecting Hot Land traffickers to the wider world, that one such group and its partners in local law enforcement attacked and disappeared 43 college students in September 2014, culminating in one of the most shocking crimes in modern Mexican history; the unsuccessful search for the students uncovered a vast number of clandestine graves across the state, underscoring an epidemic of disappearances that has plunged the region into fear. Last year, independent international human rights experts tasked with investigating the case suggested the students might have unwittingly interrupted a shipment of drugs en route to the American Midwest.
Conditions in the Hot Land are a reminder of just how large the U.S. looms over Mexico’s most troubled spaces, serving not only as the drug traffickers’ No. 1 customer, but also as a key source of weapons, a bank for illicit profits, and a symbol of hope for those seeking to break free from the slim prospects that color life in areas where unemployment, corruption, and impunity flourish. More than 4 million people call Michoacán home. A nearly equal number of Michoacanos live north of the Rio Grande, many in California, and the state typically leads Mexico in overall numbers of residents emigrating north. Over the holidays, cities like Apatzingán, the de-facto capital of the Hot Land, fill with Michoacanos coming home to spend hard-earned American dollars on loved ones.
Mora lives in La Ruana, a dusty little community where festive ribbons hang over the central thoroughfare, casting crisscrossing shadows over the rutted roadway. In the rural areas that blanket much of his state, people make their livings in fishing, mining, and forestry. Agriculture, however, is king. Two products in particular have become synonymous with the state: avocado and lime. Michoacán is among the world’s largest producers and exporters of both, with much of the product shipped to the U.S. Successful avocado and lime growers are often important power brokers in the Hot Land, where the federal government is seen as remote and Mexico’s centuries-old cacique power structure, in which local strongmen reign, continues to dominate. Mora came into the lime business through his older brother. With the exception of a few years living in California, he has spent most of his adult life tending to his family’s ranch, a 14-hectare spread of rolling hills lined with lime trees.
For a man who believes a slew of cartel assassins and a significant portion of the government would like to see him dead, Mora is hardly in hiding. His tan, one-story home is easy to find. There’s a makeshift patio shaded by a patchwork canopy of tarps in front of his neighbors’ place, the most prominent of which bears a big sun-bleached image Mora used during a failed bid for public office. His tile-floored living room is bright, airy, and clean. Mixed among the family photos hanging on his walls are black-and-white portraits of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, luminaries of the Mexican Revolution.
Nearly a hundred years after Villa and Zapata made their mark, Mexico went to war again. This time, the fight began in Mora’s state, when a newly elected president, Felipe Calderón, dispatched thousands of troops to Michoacán as part of a sweeping anti-cartel offensive in December 2006, the first stage of a campaign that would include more than 96,000 members of Mexican security forces deployed to at least a half-dozen states.
As we sat in his living room, Mora voiced support for Calderón, whose offensive is considered by many a colossal failure that plummeted Mexico into an era of incredible violence. “I know there are a lot of people who criticize him very strongly,” he explained. “I know there were collateral effects. I know people who died in this war who didn’t have to die. But the majority of the people killed were bad, criminal people, as well as some federales and police — this may sound bad, but that’s their work.”
“In a war, you have to have deaths on both sides,” Mora said. He believes Calderón struck fear into criminals. “I think he did the right thing,” he said. “And I think it was good.”
It’s a controversial position. The aftershocks of Calderón’s military campaign are synonymous with the darkest period in recent Mexican history — according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 150,000 people have been killed in Mexico since the war began; at least 26,000 others have disappeared. Still, it makes sense that Mora, a man who took up arms himself, would support an armed confrontation with criminal groups. He and Calderón were similar in that respect. The difference is that Calderón went to war with the full weight of the Mexican military at his back and Mora went to war with a rag-tag crew and a 30-year-old shotgun.
For most of the 20th century, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI in its Spanish acronym, managed the nation’s drug trafficking. So long as the traffickers paid their dues to the appropriate corrupt official, business could continue and the criminals kept their impact on the local population to a minimum. “I could have gone out at night and slept in the streets,” Mora recalled. Nobody would have bothered him. That quiet came to end about 14 years ago.
In 2000, after 71 years in power, the PRI lost its hold on the presidential palace, rattling Mexico’s narco-political infrastructure to its core. As change swept through the criminal underworld, the body count in Mexico mounted. In September 2006, armed men in masks burst into the Sol y Sombra, a popular dance hall in the city of Uruapan, some 2 1/2 hours northeast of Mora’s hometown. The gunmen fired into the air and then emptied a large plastic bag onto the dance floor. Five severed heads spilled out. They were accompanied by a handwritten message announcing the identity and intentions of those responsible — a group calling itself La Familia Michoacana, The Family of Michoacán. “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people — only those who deserve to die,” their infamous message read. “This is divine justice.”
The night is often cited as an introduction to the horrors that came after: the bodies strung from bridges, the theatrical posing of dismembered corpses, the gruesome displays turned routine. Three months later, in December 2006, Calderón, a native of Michoacán, declared his “war,” deploying troops to his home state. He had been in office just two weeks. In La Familia, Calderón found himself up against a cartel unlike anything Mexico had seen before. The cartel’s strategy was uniquely tailored to Michoacán. In a state with a long history of armed struggles, La Familia portrayed its members as homegrown vigilantes facing down predatory outsiders like the Zetas, a cartel born out of U.S.-trained Mexican special forces bent on polluting the state by selling meth locally, rather than trafficking it north.
La Familia coupled its professed commitment to the people of Michoacán with religious fanaticism. The cartel’s spiritual core was a man named Nazario Moreno González. An avid comic book fan who grew up poor in Michoacán, Moreno fantasized about having the power to speak to animals. As a teenager in the 1980s, he emigrated to the U.S., living in California and Texas. He loved Braveheart and The Godfather and consumed the writings of John Eldredge, a Colorado Springs-based evangelical author whose 2001 bestseller, Wild at Heart, calls on Christian men to reclaim their masculinity and embrace a “muscular” interpretation of the faith.
Indicted on drug charges by a federal grand jury in McAllen, Texas, Moreno fled home to the Hot Land in 2003, where he joined the highest level of La Familia’s command structure. Moreno had a number of nicknames back home — including “El Más Loco,” the Craziest One, for his temper — but to most, he was simply known as El Chayo. He was a prolific writer, publishing reflections on religion, politics, and manhood that were distributed widely and freely throughout the region.
El Chayo put a premium on discipline. His men, who dutifully carried around his writings, were officially prohibited from using meth, and El Chayo developed a reputation for lethally enforcing his edicts. Under El Chayo and a handful of other generals, La Familia wormed its way into virtually every corner of life in the region. The cartel built schools and drug rehabilitation clinics — where it molded recovering patients into brainwashed recruits — and its numbers swelled into the thousands.
In December 2010, the Calderón administration, which had appeared completely unable to halt the cartel’s advance, finally seemed to catch a break, with officials announcing that El Chayo had been killed in a two-day gun battle involving 2,000 government forces. The government trumpeted his death as evidence of La Familia’s decline. According to the official story, El Chayo’s men dragged their boss’s bullet-ridden corpse into the mountains. A shrine was built on a hill overlooking Apatzingán; inside was a statue of El Chayo monitored by surveillance cameras. Soon, other monuments and statues cropped up across the Hot Land. Stories surfaced of a ghostly El Chayo roaming the mountains of Michoacán dressed in white and performing baptisms. People began referring to him as Saint Nazario.
El Chayo had indeed survived his shootout with the government. Along with his most loyal cohorts, he created a new organization: Los Caballeros Templarios — the Knights Templar. The cartel zealously embraced the iconography of their namesake, adorning themselves with red crosses and performing initiation rituals with medieval swords. The Templarios not only picked up where La Familia left off, they took the brazenness — and bizarreness — of organized crime in the Hot Land to new heights. El Chayo, meanwhile, assumed a legendary status, the un-killable rebel who not only defied the state but took it over from the inside out.
Along with the illegal economy in Michoacán, the Templarios grabbed key chunks of the legal economy as well, including much of the state’s lucrative logging and mining industries. Taxi drivers were enlisted as lookouts, creating a vast intelligence network. Funeral homes were forced to provide free services to Templarios without paperwork. With local police and mayors under their control, cartel members managed property disputes and manipulated notaries to legitimize their theft of vehicles, land, and homes. They adjudicated local crimes and punished offenders publicly. People in Apatzingán tell of accused criminals dragged into the city square by the Templarios, where they were stripped and paddled with a wooden board. Others were crucified.
In 2011, as the Templarios were rising to power, the state’s commission for human rights and Michoacán’s University of San Nicolás Hidalgo published a slim book titled El México Que Yo Vivo — The Mexico That I Live. The book contained dozens of drawings by Mexican school children, ages 7 to 12, who were asked to illustrate their state as they saw it. The first drawing showed a woman in a yellow dress being robbed at gunpoint, her hands in the air as she screamed for help. The second depicted federal police in a gunfight; a dead body was featured in the foreground next to an AK-47. The third also featured a corpse, this one riddled with bullet holes and lying in a pool of bright red blood. On and on they went. Of the 45 images the children drew, 35 reflected scenes of violence.
While the Templarios fancied themselves the arbiters of divine justice, the truth was that El Chayo’s men took what they wanted, when they wanted. Residents describe young women and girls routinely kidnapped by Templarios only to resurface months later, pregnant and discarded by the cartel.
“They were everything,” Mora recalled. “Judges, lawyers, priests, communal officers, transit officials.”
For more than a decade, Mora watched as organized crime tightened its grip on the Hot Land, shaking down the low-wage lime pickers who make up much of the local workforce. “Here, just like the rest of the region, the lime provides most of the work,” Mora said. During La Familia’s rise, the Hot Land experienced an agricultural boom in which the value of limes nearly doubled, thanks in large part to exports to the U.S. When the Templarios came in, they undertook a price-fixing campaign that strangled the local market. “The Templarios called on four or five businessmen, owners in the lime-packing business,” Mora explained. “They would call and tell them they’re going to cut limes when they want. Sometimes they’ll cut three times a week, sometimes twice, sometimes once.”
“There were times that we wouldn’t be allowed to work,” Mora said. “Nobody dared say anything because they were murderers. They killed a lot of people and they threatened employers.”
Mora said he first considered fighting back against the cartel during the Calderón administration, even traveling to Mexico City to seek an audience with the president. “Nobody met with me,” he said. He returned to the Hot Land and began floating the idea of resistance among friends. “No, forget it, if we do it, they’ll kill us,” his friends told him.
They had a point. The Templarios wouldn’t hesitate to reduce Mora and his collaborators — or their family members — to another bloody photo in the back pages of the local Apatzingán crime coverage. But Mora couldn’t let it go, and for the next two years, he found himself returning again and again to the question of what could be done.
On December 1, 2012, the PRI returned to power in Mexico. The Calderón era was over — “We wish you and your family well,” the Templarios said in winking goodbye banners to the nation’s leader. The new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, sought to shift the international perception of Mexico away from the violence and focus instead on energy reforms, economic progress, and the nation’s bright future. Some Western media outlets enthusiastically embraced his message. A year after Peña Nieto assumed office, Time magazine famously featured the young president on its cover with the headline, “Saving Mexico.”
The optimism was premature. While Mexico was beginning to see a nationwide reduction in drug-related murders when Peña Nieto took the reins, in certain areas violence was getting much worse. Michoacán was in the midst of the greatest increase in homicides in the country, with a disproportionate amount of the bloodletting concentrated in the Hot Land. Mora, who had continued to agitate secretly for an insurgency, finally had a breakthrough. He convinced five friends — “people I’ve trusted all my life,” he said — to join him for a clandestine meeting in an orchard.
“What are we going to do?” Mora recalled asking the men. “Are we going to wait for them to kill us? To die of hunger?”
For Mora, the answer was clear. “We have to fight.”
The men, he said, were afraid.
“How are we going to do it if we don’t have weapons or money?” they asked.
Mora’s crew was unprepared for war with a well-armed criminal organization. Mora had just two shotguns, one of which his neighbor had fabricated three decades prior. Still, he managed to talk his friends into convening a public conversation on the security situation in La Ruana. They spoke to a local driver who cruised the streets making announcements of public interest over a megaphone and requested that he deliver a broadcast for them. On the morning of February 24, 2013, the driver headed out with the message: The people of this town are urgently invited to a meeting in the main garden at 10 a.m.
On motorcycles and bicycles, the newly formed force set off for homes owned or stolen by the Templarios.
With the wheels now in motion, a member of Mora’s inner circle called to say he was backing out. Mora asked his son Manuel, a 32-year-old bricklayer, if he would stand by his father. Mora’s close companion, Manuel asked only to run home to grab his pistol. As Mora rallied his posse, he told his men that if nobody chose to follow them, he would return home and wait for the Templarios to come for him. “I know I won’t win,” he recalled saying, “but I’ll die fighting them.”
By the time he arrived, the town square was full of people, many of them masked. Standing before the crowd, Mora confessed that he had called the meeting. “I’m just as tired as you that they won’t let us work,” he said. He called on anyone with “the courage to fight the Templarios” to step forward. Mora said roughly 250 people did so.
“Bring what you have to fight,” Mora encouraged the crowd, “and we will go looking for them.” A handful of people returned with AR-15s and AK-47s, Mora said — “Because some lime producers have enough money to buy these” — but most of the volunteers, if they had anything at all, were armed with simple single-shot bird hunting rifles or shotguns, weapons that some of the recruits had no idea how to use.
On motorcycles and bicycles, the newly formed force set off for homes owned or stolen by the Templarios. The crowd was overwhelming made up of “pure cutters,” Mora said, workers at the very bottom of the lime production hierarchy. They descended on the Templario properties only to find them abandoned. “We didn’t fire a shot,” Mora said. Wives and girlfriends of local Templarios who were present at his call to arms had tipped off the cartel members, he explained. The Templarios left behind weapons and a number of high-priced vehicles with Mexico City plates. “Luxury cars,” Mora said. “Mercedes-Benz, BMW.” His men now had transportation.
Hours after Mora pulled together his fighting force, a doctor in the nearby town of Tepalcatepec did the same. José Manuel Mireles Valverde had spent a decade working odd jobs in Modesto, California. Unlicensed to practice medicine in the states, he volunteered at the Red Cross, translating medical materials for Spanish-speaking migrants. In 2007, Mireles and his family returned to a Michoacán beset with violence. The Templarios beheaded three of their neighbors. As a physician, Mireles treated young women and girls regularly kidnapped and abused by the cartel. Tall and handsome at 55 with silver hair and a bushy mustache, Mireles became the most famous face of the autodefensa movement, known to fans, admirers, and enemies as The Doctor.
With Mora and Mireles at the helm, the uprising evolved rapidly. The Doctor’s people erected sandbag barricades at the entrances to his town and strung banners warning the Templarios to enter at their own risk. Mora appropriated a former Templario ranch as his base of operations. The months that followed were filled with gunfights, raids, and media appearances. The Templarios set up blockades to strangle communities where the autodefensas had sprung up, including La Ruana, triggering shortages of food, gasoline, and medicine. Meanwhile, Michoacanos living in the U.S. returned home to join the fight.
In early April 2013, Templario gunmen ambushed lime workers from La Ruana on a protest march. A dozen people were killed in what became known as “the massacre of the limoneros.” But the cartel’s wrath failed to stem the growing movement. Within a year, autodefensa units had emerged in 33 of Michoacán’s 113 municipalities. Pressure from the armed citizens’ groups fueled an unprecedented break-up of the Templarios’ power in the state.
As the autodefensas expanded, some began appearing in public with assault rifles and other high-powered weapons prohibited under Mexican law without a military permit.
As the autodefensas expanded, some began appearing in public with assault rifles and other high-powered weapons prohibited under Mexican law without a military permit. Some observers questioned who was behind the movement. For many, it seemed that darker forces were pulling the strings — after all, both La Familia and the Templarios had also wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of self-defense. Stories soon surfaced of abuses committed by autodefensas. In Cartel Land, a 2015 documentary about the movement, Mireles wrestles with the problem of criminal infiltration; he also appears to give an order to execute an alleged Templario. Mora also appears in the film, seated next to Mireles at a gathering of autodefensa leaders. “Some of the leaders who make the rules are the first to break them,” Mora tells his comrades.
Mora maintains that the bulk of the weapons his forces acquired were taken from vanquished Templarios and their partners in law enforcement, though in the past he has also mentioned purchasing arms. As an example, he points to an early confrontation with the public security director for Buenavista, the larger municipality that encompasses La Ruana. According to Mora, it was widely known that the director, who ran the local police department, was under Templario control. “The whole town knows, they take someone from here or around town and turn them over to the Templarios,” he said. “They don’t care that the citizens see it.” Mora brought his entourage to the meeting with the director, who for his part, Mora remembers, showed up with 15 well-armed cops. The Intercept was unable to independently confirm Mora’s claims.
“I want to talk to you to see if we can arrange something,” Mora recalled the director saying. “Look, sir,” Mora replied, “I’ve never met you, but I know who you are. I know who put you there and I know that you are a murderer. So there will be no settlement between us.” After a tense standoff with rifles raised, Mora said his men confiscated the police officers’ weapons, bulletproof vests, and patrol vehicles. “We locked up the director, who was a killer, and we left them,” Mora said. “These were the weapons that people said were given to us by narcos.”
According to Mora, his corner of the movement was plagued with criminal infiltration from the beginning, and he was one of the few to stand up against its poisoning. After locking up the public security director, Mora said he was approached by a group of men who were friends of El Chayo and claimed to have turned on the drug lord’s organization. They told Mora he had no chance of defeating El Chayo’s killers on his own. “We know them. We know the people that they have; the money that they have; the weapons that they have,” the men said. They proposed a solution: allow the Jalisco New Generation cartel, a rising power in the Mexican criminal landscape, to slip into the Hot Land and use their assassins to eliminate the Templarios.
Mora described his response as an unequivocal no. “This is precisely why we took up arms, in order to end this filth,” he said. “All of the cartels, from my very personal point of view, are the same. They’re killers.” Mora said he ultimately drove the men out of town. It would prove to be a temporary fix to an entrenched problem. And as Mora would soon learn, his troubles were just beginning.
Alejandro Guerrero Lara contributed to this story.