When I met Papa Smurf he was standing by a highway rest stop in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, with an entourage of more than a hundred heavily armed men and a convoy of 18 trucks.
After a day trying to track down his caravan while navigating the roads that connect the small towns and avocado fields outside of the city of Uruapan in this rugged stretch of southwestern Mexico, I got a warm greeting from Papá Pitufo as the vigilante leader is called in Spanish. “Thanks for coming,” he said with a wide smile, shaking my hand firmly and pulling me in for a bear hug.
Papa Smurf, or Estanislao Beltran by his given name, is a charismatic and heavily bearded man who serves as one of the leaders of Michoacan’s vigilante fighting force. He walked me through a crowd of his gunmen, passing a muscular young man who was carrying an M-16 and wearing military boots, kneepads, and a tactical vest and standing near a truck that was emblazoned with a hand-written message, “For a free Los Reyes.” A few feet away a light-skinned and broad-shouldered man wearing jeans, a gray shirt, and a U.S. Army hat held a shotgun and sipped on a Modelo Especial beer.
Estanislao Beltran, aka Papa Smurf, stands among a caravan of trucks as he and his vigilante "autodefensa" fighters prepare to enter a new town in Michoacan, Mexico. (Credit: Nathaniel Parish Flannery)
Beltran’s fighters are the strongest security presence in many small towns in this part of southwestern Mexico. While travelling through the region, I saw that the highway between Mexico City and Uruapan was heavily patrolled by army trucks and federal police, but on the small roads that connect the towns outside of the city, the federal security forces were nowhere to be found. Inside more heavily populated towns such as Nuevo San Juan and Tancitaro, I saw soldiers and police, but out on the roads there were only a few checkpoints -- barricades built from sandbags and rocks that were manned by teams of skinny “citizen police” carrying antique shotguns and pistols. In some areas, they may ask passing drivers to open their trucks for inspection. Mostly they are there to discourage cartel gunmen from driving through.
Photo: Estanislao Beltran, aka Papa Smurf, speaks to the crowd in Santa Clara. (Credit: Nathaniel Parish Flannery)
Near Tancitaro there were billboards and signs advertising the sale and purchase of avocado, the area’s major crop, as well as a brand new Volkswagen SUV with a smashed windshield and a spray-painted banner that read “Autodefensa” (Self Defense Force.) Until late January 2014, the city was controlled by the Knights Templar cartel.
The Knights Templar rose up as an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana cartel. The Templars are known for embracing religious iconography and erecting shrines dedicated to their founder. Senior Templar leaders have released videos and spoken to the press about their mission of acting as a socially responsible drug trafficking organizations. Residents, however, have long complained of brutal abuses by Templar gunmen. The organization has worked to earn and sustain a reputation for its gunmen’s ruthless efficiency and their willingness to carry out brazen and well-orchestrated attacks against local security forces and politicians.
Now the army, federal police and the citizen vigilantes are working to take towns back, one at a time. Near the exit of Tancitaro on the way to Los Reyes, there’s a sun-faded sign with a picture of a uniformed police officer that says, “Tancitaro is a clean city!” There’s another billboard that says, “Don’t get involved! Police and public servants…who engage in...kidnapping, extortion and robbery [can get] up to 45 years in prison.” But, while Mexico’s federal government has succeeded in wresting many municipalities from the control of the Knights Templar cartel many small towns still fall outside of the government’s watch.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon in early February, Beltran and his men prepared to enter a community called Santa Clara near the city of Los Reyes. Beltran walked through the crowd, passing a young man carrying a heavy machine gun in front of a white Lincoln Navigator SUV. “We take the guns and the trucks from the criminals,” he said. He looked up at a man in an Armani Exchange T-shirt holding a pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle. “We’ve found arsenals with 20, 50, even 70 guns,” he said.
He also worked to diminish doubts about the source of their weapons and vehicles. “We’re hunters,” he said. “We had shotguns and rifles. Some had machine guns. We scavenge for our weapons. We find [cartel] caches with 80 guns and bullets. [People] ask us about our trucks. They’re the criminals’ trucks.”
Money from wealthy farm owners also helps buy weapons and supplies. Mexican prosecutors are investigating whether vigilantes are accepting guns from criminal organizations from neighboring states. The autodefensas, however, deny charges of connections to organized crime. They are also quick to point out that they think part of the problem in their towns is that the cartels have been paying off federal security forces and local police for years.
On March 11, Mexican police arrested Hipolito Mora, another autodefensa leader, for allegedly participating in the killing of two militia members. Unlike some other vigilante leaders, Beltran, for his part, has not publicly condemned Mora’s arrest. He told me that if autodefensas commit crimes, they should be turned over to authorities for prosecution.
Despite the emergence of recent tensions, overall, Michoacan’s citizen fighting force, a group that was once shunned by authorities, has now been embraced. They are in the process of becoming a formal sub-unit of the army. Such a unit, known as a defensa rural, is a long-standing traditional law enforcement institution that existed in many farm communities during the 20th century. “We don’t have uniforms because they haven’t arrived yet,” Beltran said.
The divide between vigilantes and Mexican authorities may be about more than a uniform. Earlier in the year, the army attempted to disarm some of the citizen militia members, leading to a confrontation in which soldiers opened fire on civilians, killing at least two. As part of the deal to incorporate the militia into the army as a Rural Defense Force, Beltran’s gunmen are required to register their weapons. “We’ll register our guns and keep them in our possession,” he explained.
Although the vigilantes have established a presence in about a fifth of the state, there are still many small towns that remain outside of their control. Slowly, though, the citizen militia is expanding its influence. On the side of the highway outside of the city of Los Reyes, Papá Pitufo and his men prepared to move into the town of Santa Clara. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to take back another town and give a speech for the people there.” A man who carried himself like a former soldier asked if I’d like a ribbon to tie to my car’s driver-side mirror, to show that I was part of the defense force. I accepted. The men climbed up into the backs of the pickup trucks, and one by one they pulled into the street forming a caravan. I hopped in the passenger side of my car and my driver pulled into the line of vehicles behind a pickup truck.
On the road, the caravan of trucks pulled through residential neighborhoods. A man in the back of the truck ahead waved at residents who came out of their houses to watch the vigilante fighters pass by. “For the people!” a gunman shouted. A woman on the sidewalk smiled and nodded, waving back. “Peace and tranquility! That’s what we want,” a man yelled. “A free Michoacan, let’s go for it comrades,” another gunman screamed. “Goodbye, Templarios!” a man in the truck in front of me called out. A family stood in front of their house, waving and smiling in support.
In the past, the caravan has had to dodge sniper fire when it entered a new town. And on one occasion, the vigilantes got a tip that assassins from the Knights Templar cartel had planted bombs on the side of the road. They sent scouts to defuse the bombs before they arrived. As we entered Santa Clara, however, the tensest moments came when somebody set off firecrackers near the side of the road.
“Peace and tranquility! That’s what we want,” one of the gunmen in the truck yelled as residents came out of their houses to watch the caravan pass in Santa Clara, Michoacan. (Credit: Nathaniel Parish Flannery)
The men parked their trucks, pulling a shoddily bullet-proofed SUV up in front of the main plaza. Unlike the heavily reinforced luxury SUVs favored by many Mexican politicians and executives, which sport thick bulletproof glass windows and custom built panels inside the doors that can stop an AK-47 bullet, the truck featured welded metal plates over its windows and a machine gunner’s roost in the roof. “It’s been Mexicanized,” one of the gunmen explained.
While the militia members fanned out throughout the plaza, Beltran took a seat on a bench across from two old men. “Sometimes they shoot at us, but organized crime is getting weaker. We’re cleaning up,” he said. Now that they have received approval from the military and the government, the vigilantes have increased their power. “The army is here. There’s coordination. I talk to them,” Beltran explained.
While many checkpoints in towns in rural Michoacan are staffed by round-bodied women and skinny men carrying old shotguns and AK-47s, Beltran’s fighting force is composed of cabrones, hard-looking men who look comfortable carrying their heavy rifles. They are local men who have gone through an internal vetting process. Some analysts have questioned how it is that ordinary citizens can defeat cartel gunmen in battle. Beltran dismisses such doubts. “We have a cause. We fight with courage. We all have experience hunting. We’ve got practice shooting. They fight like cowards, they shout and run,” he said.
Although so far the vigilantes have been welcomed by many communities, not all residents are comfortable with their presence. Jonathan Herrera, a 36-year-old café owner from Los Reyes said, “I’d prefer to just have the government but obviously [the situation] is out of control.” He’s also worried about how the presence of the vigilantes is seen by outsiders and how it will affect tourism. “It affects my business,” he said. “More armed men means more security but it’s hard to tell who’s a narco and who’s a vigilante. It’s bad for business even if the intentions are good.”
While Michoacan has long been known for its high-quality farmland and booming agricultural sector, since 2006 it has become infamous for being one of the focal points for organized crime activity in Mexico. “They extort us. Taco sellers, cattle owners, avocado farmers, lime growers…everybody has to pay,” Beltran said. While the cartel increased its power in local politics and community life, residents complained that local police were failing to guarantee basic law and order. In many towns, “the municipal police were the armed wing of the Caballeros. Instead of protecting the people they kidnapped people and turned them over,” Beltran said.
Now, the army and federal police run armed patrols through the streets and the self-defense groups act as the de facto municipal police fo ce in many towns. In some cases, the vigilantes have actually disarmed and displaced the local police. In other cases, they have simply set up operations in tiny towns that never had much police presence to begin with.
On February 8, an estimated 600 vigilante fighters entered the long-time Knights Templar stronghold of Apatzingan. This time they wore makeshift uniforms (simple white T-shirts, some of which had the word “GRUPO DE AUTODEFENSA” printed on the back) and were accompanied by 300 federal police and soldiers. Again, without firing a shot, they set up roadblocks and patrols and detained the cousin of a senior Templar leader.
Beltran's caravan moves slowly down a narrow road in Santa Clara, Michoacan. “Goodbye, Templarios!” a man in the truck called out. (Credit: Nathaniel Parish Flannery)
In the short term, the vigilantes, now working directly with heavily armed police and soldiers, are succeeding in driving the cartel gunmen out of one town after another, and re-establishing a basic sense of security for residents. Although they have been affected by internal tensions and infighting between factions, so far the autodefensas have also managed to remain a mostly unified force when it comes to pushing out the cartel gunmen. On March 9, the cooperative arrangement paid off, leading to the killing of Narario “El Chayo” Moreno, an elusive Templario leader, who had escaped detention during a gunfight with soldiers in 2010 and had been presumed dead by Mexico’s government. Local residents, however, who lived near Moreno’s operations base in Michoacan, watched him throw ostentatious parties. Cooperation between the autodefensas and federal government led to action on intelligence gathered from those residents.
The vigilante group provides a positive outlet for young people whose lives have been affected by cartel violence. After so many years of abuses by criminal gangs, the group hasn’t had trouble finding willing recruits.
During the operation in Santa Clara, while gunmen fanned out around the plaza, the town’s residents gathered to hear Papa Pitufo speak. Arturo, a wiry 25-year-old fighter from Tapalcatepec, a city near the state border with Jalisco, stood guard near the edge of the square. “I joined [the vigilantes] because the Templarios ‘disappeared’ four of my family members…my dad, two uncles and a cousin,” he told me. “[The Templar members] have robbed houses, stolen cows, trucks. They kidnap, rape. Everything that’s bad, they do,” Arturo said.
While Mexico’s police are increasingly using rigorous screening mechanisms when hiring new officers, Arturo said that “when it comes to joining the [vigilante] community police, we don’t discriminate. Anybody can join us, as long as they are serious,” he said, gripping the handle of his assault rifle. Arturo said that at least three of his family members joined the Knights Templar cartel. Another uncle served time in jail in the U.S. for drug trafficking. He and his cousins, though, joined the vigilante group in part to seek revenge and end the reign of the Knights Templar.
Family and friends can help vouch for new members. Still, serious rifts have emerged among the vigilante groups leadership over allegations of connections to the drug cartels.
“If we detain somebody suspected of working with the cartel, we turn them over to the police,” Arturo said. “But, when it comes to shootouts, we’ve never detained anybody. They fight until the end.” As he spoke, he watched as a tall and heavyset gunman wearing hunting camouflage and carrying a machine gun walked by. To the right, a line of hard-looking middle-aged men held their guns in front of them and monitored the activity in the plaza.
Arturo thinks that many of the cartel gunmen he’s fought are really just “drug addicts, kids.”
“They’re outsiders from Guerrero and Chiapas. The bosses hide while the pistoleros die. They don’t have numbers, they don’t know how to fight, but they shoot until they die,” he said. Many of the highly trained cartel assassins have fled the state or are now hiding out in the mountains.
Within the towns, so far at least, the vigilante fighters are being embraced. “At first people are scared. But then later they help us. Yesterday and today people brought us drinks and helped us take care of the barricades,” he said. “People wave, it makes them happy to see us advance. We treat them with respect,” he added.
While local police have failed to protect their communities, Arturo is more optimistic about the new arrangement, in which the autodefensas have been afforded de jure status and vigilantes now manage checkpoints alongside federal police officers. “The federal government, the federal police, they’re with us 100 percent,” he said.
Standing on a stage with several gunmen behind him in the center of the plaza, Beltran spoke into a microphone to a crowd of locals. “We’re not killers. We just want the pueblo to defend itself,” he said.
“We don’t make pacts with criminals,” Beltran said. “We just want your town to be free of hoodlums. We’re part of the Rural Defense Force. We’ve got a good relationship with the soldiers and the federal police. We have to work together. We invite you to organize yourselves so criminal groups don’t stay here.”
After the speech, a local teacher named Javier Rojas spoke to the crowd. He told me afterwards, “I see them as a group that speaks the truth and wants to help the people.”
Below the stage, vigilante gunmen met with local teens. One skinny man, dressed in a hip-hop style gray outfit and tilted flat-brimmed hat, held up his hands like a boxer. “We’re ready to fight,” he told a vigilante holding a machine gun.
In the crowd, a 76-year-old resident named Antonio reflected on the presentation. “It’s very good,” he said. “The ideas are good. We’ve had a long time with the Templarios, the kidnapping, the robberies, and the death.” He added that moving forward, “there could be shootouts but not the same danger as before. It’s already safer here.”
With the sun setting over the mountains in the distance, the vigilante gunmen climbed into their trucks. “You don’t want to be on the roads at night here. There are towns where the Templarios are still strong. They’ll stop you and hang you from a tree,” one fighter said.
The trucks pulled out of the town in a row, leaving for the day, but promising to return to set up checkpoints and provide security. As they exited the town and returned to Los Reyes, some SUVs pulled off on different routes to go back to their home communities.
As they entered Los Reyes, however, the soldiers at the checkpoint scrambled to their gun stations behind the sandbags at the entrance to the city. The soldiers, aiming their weapons, frantically motioned for me to pass the checkpoint and leave the area.
From the distance, after all, a caravan of luxury SUVs and trucks filled with heavily armed civilian police looks very similar to a cartel death squad.
Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Mexico City based multimedia journalist. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and has worked on projects in Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, India and China. Follow him on Twitter at @LatAmLENS.