41 Kilometers Crossing the Templar Stronghold

[ Michoacán self-defense groups in late 2013 ]

Published on January 23, 2014 at Subversiones

Translated by patizapatita 1/24/14

Stones lined up on the asphalt reduce the road to a single lane. On one side, dozens of sacks filled with sand are piled asymmetrically, forming a barricade, all indicating that it is part of a checkpoint. It is the intersection of Cuatro Caminos, 1 km away from Nueva Italia, until now the largest city in the state of Michoacán that has been freed from the control of the Knights Templar cartel (liberada del control de los Caballeros Templarios) by the self-defense groups.

We stop the car a few meters before the barricade and notice that there are no members of the self-defense group in sight. The businesses around the checkpoint are all open and offer various meals and services. On first impression, life unfolds normally and it even seems that the barricade to the side is an integral part of the scene. The landscape of a conflict zone.

When we resume the journey, heading to Apatzingán, Templar territory besieged by the auto-defense groups, we note a strong police presence in the area. The federal police vehicles and dozens of heavily armed troops hold positions in various parts of the crossroad. Some talk amongst themselves while others look at their cell phones or buy things at the shops and businesses nearby. They don’t look alert, just somewhat bored. Here time seems to pass more slowly.

We advance towards Apatzingán on a path that in recent years -and days- has witnessed countless shootings, kidnappings, killings, burning of vehicles and all sorts of atrocities. Although at first glance it seems that nothing has happened here, all one needs is to sharpen one’s sight a bit to see some remnants of the past events that have devastated this road.

We pass by the entrance to Antúnez, where a few days ago soldiers who wanted to disarm a self-defense group killed civilians opposing the disarmament, sparking demonstrations and public protests in various cities freed by the self-defense groups.

A few kilometers ahead, we find the turnoff to Parácuaro, where just 12 hours before, there was a confrontation between paramilitary groups and members of the Knights Templar that lasted at least 4 hours. It is believed that some of the leaders of the Templar cartel participated, and according to self-defense sources, fled to the surrounding mountains.

We are approaching the entry to Apatzingán, and although no one says so, it is obvious that we are all more alert; our plan is to pass through and stop only at red lights. Nobody has the desire or need to stop in that city, full of narcos and besieged by self-defense groups.

It’s a sunny day in Apatzingán, the presence of police and military is overwhelming; the lookouts, a little sneakier, also make their presence felt. We have not advanced even two streets when we come to a roundabout where you turn right, but a military convoy had closed the street and requires all vehicles to retreat. We ask a taxi driver who is parked if he knows what is happening and he says no, we’d better ask the military.

We take an alternative route that allows us to skip the military blockade and talk about how despite the imminent capture of the city by the auto-defense groups and the confrontations that took place the night before within 20 kilometers, the local newspapers only cover a bus rollover.

We have already crossed more than half of the city and something catches our attention: at a corner, at least 20 luxury vans are parked in formation, ready to go out in a convoy. Nobody is seen inside or out, but it is clear that the owners or occupants are nearby.

We leave Apatzingán and reach San José de los Plátanos, where there is a self-defense group checkpoint. We have left the Templar stronghold behind and are entering the ‘liberated’ zone once again. We feel a little relieved…this time we say so.

We have advanced 41 miles from the intersection of Cuatro Caminos to the checkpoint of San José de los Plátanos. 41 kilometers where the air is thick to breathe, 41 kilometers of federal police, soldiers and Knights Templar, 41 kilometers where the feeling is one of a tense and fragile calm.

Photo by Heriberto Paredes Coronel
Photo by Heriberto Paredes Coronel