Civilians forced to take sides in Mexico's drug war

Mariachi musician joins vigilantes to battle cartel that killed his nephews

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 6:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 2014, 6:16am


Mariachi musician Efrain has traded his violin for a rifle. He wants to fight a drug cartel that killed two of his nephews.

His plight is like that of many in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where vigilante groups were formed last year to take on the cartel called the Knights Templar.

Efrain, 58, said his nephews were 19 and 20 years old. The family paid the ransom demanded by the drug lords, but the hostages were killed anyway.

Before that, Efrain had already been forced into the unpleasant task of playing with his mariachi band at parties thrown at the drug traffickers' ranches.

He guards a ranch in a region called Tierra Caliente, the epicentre of violence between the vigilantes and the cartel, which engages in kidnapping, extortion and other crimes besides drug trafficking.

Sick of the years of abuse, the vigilantes rose up with the support of many farming communities in Tierra Caliente.

But they have raised eyebrows because they seem suspiciously well-funded.

They drive expensive trucks and use AK-47 assault rifles. The suspicion is that they are financed by some other cartel that wants to take Knights Templar territory.

"We really do not know where their interests lie. There must be some that are linked to drug traffickers, but it is clear that they got fed up with making pay-offs to the Knights Templar," said a woman in the city of Apatzingan who refused to give her name.

"All we want is to not have to pay them, so they will leave us alone," she added.

People in Tierra Caliente have spent months in a state of alert.

They are trapped in the crossfire between the Knights Templar and the vigilantes, who have taken control in some 20 towns to try to expel the drug cartel.

Added to the mix this week were thousands of federal police and army troops sent in by President Enrique Pena Nieto to try to pacify the region.

Like many other parts of Mexico, it has been plagued by drug-related violence for years, but it is now the main security issue facing the president as he wages war on the cartels.

The conflict has left more than 77,000 people dead in drug-related violence since 2006.

The first thing the Mexican government did was relieve municipal police in towns in Tierra Caliente. For years they have been suspected of working for the Knights Templar.

In order to be a police officer in this region you had to be "first a hit man and Knight Templar" said Gregorio Lopez, a priest in the town of Apatzingan, considered the main stronghold of the cartel.

Lopez defends the vigilantes' cause.

He said the power of the cartel was such that it scared away the city's street-side shoe shiners and replaced them with their own people, to serve the federal police "and laugh in their faces".

His message to the Knights Templar is that "it is time to repent".