‘‘I want to go away, I want to resign this job, because I wasn’t made for this. I can’t even ensure the safety of my own children, who are also in danger,’’ Mayor Genaro Guizar said in an emotional interview with the Milenio television station.
Calderon’s office declined to comment directly on the situation in the Tierra Caliente, but referred The Associated Press to a speech the president delivered this year in Michoacan emphasizing the importance of purging local, state and federal police forces of corruption in order to produce trustworthy agencies capable of investigating crimes and bringing suspects to trial.
The cartel’s territory begins at the gates of the military base in the center of Apatzingan. Each of the five entrances is watched around the clock by the Knights Templar, as are virtually every highway exit, toll booth and village square, according to the soldiers.
The cartel consists largely of men from the Tierra Caliente, and they promote themselves as a mystic Christian order dedicated to protecting the population from abuse at the hands of the military and police. They have self-published at least two books and a variety of pamphlets collecting the sayings and memoirs of their leaders, most prominently the late Moreno, founder of their predecessor gang, La Familia.
Even the troops acknowledge the cartel has a substantial degree of local support due to its family networks, patronage of local communities and exploitation of citizens’ anger at the government.
The cartel runs ‘‘training schools,’’ including one in Apatzingan, that teach courses in leadership portraying cartel members as clean-living men of honor, steeped in Asian religion alongside Catholicism, and dedicated to protecting the people of Michoacan from a government they say is manipulated by a ultraconservative religious group known as El Yunque, or the Anvil.
According to cartel leaders, it is their duty to go against the government, saying Calderon used insecurity as a pretext for launching a bloody war.
‘‘It has brought death and pain on thousands of homes,’’ according to one book attributed to Moreno, whose philosophy was adopted by Knights Templar after the downfall of La Familia. ‘‘It was my obligation, with my comrades, to mount this fight. It’s the only way to guarantee a change in our country.’’
Under Mexican law, soldiers can’t formally investigate crimes and can only stop criminal activity that occurs directly in front of them. So they are limited to patrolling, responding to tips about crimes in progress, searching cars at roadside checkpoints and hunting for meth labs and marijuana fields by helicopter and on foot.
Most officers in the 43rd Military Zone carry two radios, one encrypted for military communications, and the other to listen to the Knights Templar watching their men. They also carry laminated cards confiscated from cartel operatives printed with hundreds of the gang’s radio codes. The code ‘‘53’’ refers to the army, ‘‘69’’ to the U.S.-made Humvees and ‘‘56’’ to military intelligence operatives.
One army officer said he had heard Templar operatives checking the status of roads all the way to Mexico City, some six hours drive east.
On Monday, the army said, soldiers with the 43rd Military Zone, raided a ranch named ‘‘The Horses’’ in village outside Apatzingan that is believed to be the property of Enrique ‘‘Kiki’’ Plancarte Solis, co-leader of the Knights Templar along with Servando ‘‘La Tuta’’ Gomez Martinez.
The troops were attacked with gunfire and grenades and returned fire, killing one of the attackers, the army said. Inside the ranch the troops found more than 28 pounds of marijuana, a pound of crystal meth, a smaller amount of cocaine, dozens of grenades, anti-tank rockets, pistols and rifles, including a powerful 50-caliber sniper rifle, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
The soldiers have taken down 90 labs so far this year, but the number of arrests they've made — 95 — does not reflect the amount of criminal activity they’re aware of.
‘‘All we can do is keep working, keep patrolling, moving through the countryside and the streets, and try to find them from time to time,’’ Patino said.
The army says it is well-received by people in the Tierra Caliente, though Michoacan’s state commission on human rights says complaints against the army and federal police in Apatzingan have risen sharply, from 69 in 2008 to 391 last year.
Riding in groups of six or seven, the riflemen of the 51st Battalion scan the traffic and the roadside from benches mounted in the backs of their pickups. In each truck, one soldier mans a heavy weapon mounted on a pivot behind the roof of the cab.Continued...