launchers, the Knights Templar roamed the land, kidnapping, collecting money,
recruiting followers (often from drug rehab centers), trafficking in meth and
all the while portraying themselves as protectors of Michoacan.
They infiltrated police departments and local governments in many parts of western Mexico, and also came to control Michoacan's Lazaro Cardenas port, one of the country's busiest. There, they joined forces with Chinese traders to bring in chemicals for cooking meth along with cheap Chinese clothing and other products for sale, intelligence officials said.
Their control of the economy was so overwhelming that Mexico, normally a huge exporter of limes, primarily from Michoacan, will probably have to import the fruit this year. Knights Templar thugs forbade lime harvests when they didn't receive their cut, and tons of limes have simply rotted on the ground.
The cartel's purported leader is revered by many as something of a saint. Federal authorities reported that they killed Nazario Moreno Gonzalez -- alias El Mas Loco, the Craziest -- in a shootout in December 2010. But a body was never recovered.
Most people in Tierra Caliente are convinced that he is still around and very much in charge. According to local lore, he appears in villages, baptizes babies and preaches a firebrand form of evangelical Christianity. Many worship an angelic-looking icon of him encrusted with sparkling jewels.
Throughout Tierra Caliente, supporters have erected chapels and white adobe shrines to honor "Saint Nazario." One, on the outskirts of a town called Buenavista Tomatlan, up the road from Coalcoman, now sits in ruins. It was trashed when the people of Buenavista rose up against the Knights Templar, a couple of months before Coalcoman.
Several armed skirmishes between local vigilantes and the Knights were reported in the weeks leading up to the army's arrival, with casualties in the dozens.
Coalcoman, about 270 miles west of Mexico City and 140 miles west of Morelia, rose up in mid-May. For the first few nights, Garcia, 42, and his allies camped out in City Hall. He now is on the move daily, along with his wife and three children.
The Templarios have retreated, Garcia said, at least for now.
Some in the federal government have suggested that a rival cartel is the force instigating the uprisings in Tierra Caliente. Garcia vehemently denied that ("If this is a cartel, it's a cartel of the people!") while acknowledging that wealthy local ranchers were responsible for arming the comunitarios.
"You think they can fight with slingshots?" Garcia demanded.
The roads through Tierra Caliente are still relatively deserted, as residents wait to see who ultimately gains the upper hand in this phase of the battle.
Reporters traveling a 120-mile stretch into the most battle-scarred area pass through seven military or police checkpoints -- sometimes manned jointly with the comunitarios. The army has been negotiating with these vigilante groups, attempting to persuade them to lay down or at least not openly brandish their weapons.
In Coalcoman, Mexican fighter aircraft circle overhead in a show of strength. The burned-out shells of passenger buses, tractor-trailers and sawmills can be spotted along the way, the remains of Knights Templar retribution.
"We will not let down our guard, or put down our weapons, until we see results," Garcia said. "We want to see them behind bars."
(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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