They pull onto a dirt road and head to a series of little towns that are home to some of the Knights Templar leadership, including the communally owned village of El Alcalde, where they stop at a yellow stucco house filled with new appliances and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped in barbed wire.
The gate is open, and the soldiers walk up to the open windows, pulling aside the shades and peering inside. The house is cleaned every day but rarely occupied. They have no doubt that it’s owned by a high-ranking member of the Knights Templar, Gonzalez said.
Each of the little towns in the area has such a house, newly built, assiduously maintained and filled with luxury finishes, thick carved-wood doors, marble floors, faux-Greek concrete columns, and immaculately tended rose bushes. Most sit on high ground at the edge of the towns, offering vistas of the roads and other houses. The money that paid for them didn’t come just from avocado trees.
Outside of town, a shrine to La Familia founder Moreno Gonzalez sits atop a steep flight of concrete steps, dominating the road. Dozens of votive candles set on the chapel steps have been smashed to shards, the glass panels of the chapel doors are broken and deep pockmarks, apparently from bullets, mar the doors.
A black ‘‘Z’ has been spray-painted on the front of the chapel, the trademark of the paramilitary Zetas cartel that battled the Knights Templar and La Familia before being largely driven out by the Knights.
Gonzalez said he believes the Knights Templar left the vandalism unrepaired as a way of inspiring their followers to maintain vigilance against future Zeta incursions.
Soldiers say the Knights Templar extort protection money from nearly every legitimate business in the Tierra Caliente, including at least three taxes on the region’s famous avocados — one on the owners of the fields based on the area they own, one charged per ton on the middlemen who buy the crop and a third for exporters based on every kilogram of avocados.
The cartel also taxes Michoacan’s lemon farmers as well as urban stores and markets.
‘‘They've come as far as fixing the price of a tortilla or a kilo of meat,’’ Gonzalez said. ‘‘They give the order that everyone is going to sell it for 60 pesos and all of butchers adjust their price to 60 pesos a kilo.’’
The military has found ledgers with budgets for road maintenance in rural areas. Around El Alcalde, in the neighboring towns of Guanajatillo, Moreno’s reputed birthplace, and Los Laureles, roads are notably smoother than elsewhere, with well-tended culverts and surrounding fields of freshly planted and rigorously cared-for sorghum.
Gonzalez says local people have reported that the Knights Templar have planted hundreds of acres of the crop, and the equipment in the fields is expensive and new, including a shiny green John Deere combine harvester. Following the trail of funds earned from criminal activity falls to civilian prosecutors and investigators, and the soldiers say they see virtually no evidence that authorities are tracking the Knight Templars’ money.