Ditching the Cartel for the Militia: Switching Sides in Mexico’s Drug War

As a 19-year-old avocado farmer, Andres Moreno has missed out on the industrial jobs that are said to be increasing Mexico’s middle class. But he’s already fought on both sides of the armed conflict that has gripped Mexico’s Michoacan state over the last year.

It started with a drug cartel. His family’s income hovers around Mexico’s minimum wage of $110 per month, yet each year when the avocado harvest came in, the Moreno family had to pay taxes to the Knights Templar, a cartel that runs extortion rackets on mining, farming and even tortilla shops in Michoacan.

“We had about 30 avocado trees, and every year we had to pay 3,000 pesos [$230],” Moreno said, as we spoke by a roadblock outside the city of Uruapan.

It didn’t end there. Moreno and several of his friends actually ended up working for the cartel that was ripping off their families.

“We joined to see if they would stop taxing us, but they kept on charging us” said Moreno, who worked as a “hawk” for the Knights Templar for four months. His job was to keep an eye on military convoys and troop deployments, and to alert his superiors of how many soldiers were approaching town, and when.

But when a vigilante groups rose against the cartel last year in Moreno’s hometown of Tancitaro, he decided to switch sides. Moreno deserted the Knights Templar and joined a local militia last November, along with two other friends who had relatives kidnapped or killed by the cartel.

“This is a movement for the people,” Moreno said. “These guys are trying to return stolen property.”

It’s hard to know how many people have switched sides in the conflict that has pitted vigilante groups against the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacan.

But as vigilante groups and the Mexican government push the Knights Templar out of different parts of that state, these deserters have become easier to find in barricades, set up by vigilante groups outside different towns.

Part of the reason for the desertions is that the Knights Templar do not seem to be treating their rank and file well, possibly because the cartel is on the retreat, and has lost some of its sources of income.

“At first they paid us properly” said Moreno, who was making 1,500 pesos a week [$115] under the Knights Templar. “But after two weeks or a month, they would skip payments, and if we complained they would threaten to kill our families.”

Desertions also happen because as vigilantes move into different towns, those who keep an allegiance to the Knights Templar risk being killed, or simply risk being banished from the towns in which they live. Vigilante groups in Michoacan have arrested municipal police officers whom they suspect of having ties to the Knights Templar, and have even pressured local officials to remove dozens of cops from their posts, and send them to other parts of Mexico, where they are currently being retrained.

For rank and file members of the Knights Templar like Moreno, it seems that switching allegiances is the safest bet. See the video above for more on Moreno’s story, and his life under both sides of Michoacan’s war.

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