APATZINGAN, Mexico (AP) — Forest-camouflaged pickups roared to life as the Mexican soldiers pulled on their black masks and hoisted their Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles.
The three-truck convoy pulled out of the base to patrol the rugged, mountainous region of the western state of Michoacan, when a raspy voice burst out of an unencrypted radio inside one of the cabs: ‘‘Three R's, 53.’’ Three army vehicles, headed your way.
It wasn’t a soldier’s voice. The radio had picked up a call from the Knights Templar, a quasi-religious drug cartel that controls the area and most of the state. Its web of spies monitors the movements of the military and police around the clock. The gang’s members not only live off methamphetamine and marijuana smuggling and extortion, they maintain country roads, control the local economy and act as private debt collectors for citizens frustrated with the courts, soldiers say.
‘‘Because they’re vigilant and well-organized they roll around here with a lot of ease,’’ said Lt. Col. Julices Gonzalez Calzada, the leader of the patrol.
Felipe Calderon launched his presidency in December 2006 by sending the army to Michoacan, his home state, to battle organized crime that he said threatened to expand from drug trafficking to controlling civil society. His administration says it has debilitated many of the cartels with a leadership-focused offensive that has killed or captured 25 of the country’s 37 most-wanted men.
But he has failed to stop drug cartels from morphing into mafias infiltrating society in the sun-seared Tierra Caliente, or Hot Country, a region named for its steamy weather, but now also too hot with gang activity for many to live and work safely. The government annihilated the leadership of one previous cartel, La Familia Michoacana, but a splinter group, the Knights Templar, moved in to take control.
Rank-and-file soldiers say they feel largely powerless in the face of an enemy that hides among the population. They say whenever they make strategic strikes, the gang’s professional-grade infrastructure is replaced almost as fast as it’s taken down.
Now the two sides largely co-exist.
To get a soldier’s eye view of the conflict, The Associated Press spent two days embedded with the 51st Battalion of the 43rd Military Zone, a vast region that’s home to about 3,000 soldiers, a force that’s more than doubled since Calderon mounted his offensive. Gen. Miguel Angel Patino, commanding officer, said his troops’ work against the gangs has ‘‘limited a lot of their activity. They don’t have the freedom to act that they used to.’’
But patrols through dry forests, avocado fields and hardscrabble towns show that the cartel operates with few restrictions. Soldiers point out pastel-colored, air-conditioned narco-mansions that stand out from the cluster of humble rural shacks in many of the small towns.
In the deep hills around El Alcalde, a town 12 miles from Apatzingan, is a brand-new sports arena with a cock-fighting pit and a bull-fighting ring that seats hundreds. The stables are filled with dozens of sleek, well-groomed horses. Soldiers say it was built and run by the Knights Templar.
The Calderon government claims its efforts are reducing violence in Mexico, though it stopped reporting the number of drug-related killings more than a year ago, when it reached 47,500 since Calderon started his term. Many private groups now put the number close to 60,000.
Indeed, things are quieter in the Tierra Caliente, where in 2009 La Familia rounded up, tortured and dumped the bodies of 12 federal police officers working the area.
In 2010, police battled with cartel forces for several days as gang members hijacked and torched buses, blocking major highways in the state capital of Morelia. Authorities say it ended with the killing of La Familia founder Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as ‘‘The Craziest One,’’ though his body was never found.
Soldiers say confrontations are down to about one a month. But even the general agrees it’s because the Knights Templar won the war against the rival gang.
‘‘What the Knights Templar is doing is maintaining tight control on organized crime in this area,’’ Patino said. ‘‘The dominance allows the area to stay quiet to a certain point.’’
Most citizens are quiet, too, shaking off questions about the drug gang. Local residents questioned by the AP about extortions or cartel rule declined to talk.
When the then-mayor of Apatzingan was pressed by reporters last year about a string of kidnappings in his town, he practically broke down.Continued...