The eight-year drugs war has claimed around 100,000 lives in Mexico
Now federal government policy towards vigilantes appears to be changing
In Antunez, vigilantes show CNN a home that they recently confiscated
In some parts of Mexico, vigilantes are returning property to victims of drugs cartels
The bright yellow front wall of the compound is lined with perfectly pruned palm trees.
Our hosts open a metal gate and usher us inside to a large yard with a fresh-cut lawn, more palm trees and a circular pool in the middle.
The house itself is a two-story dwelling, also painted in bright yellow with white accents and double-paned windows with arched tops and red tile roof.
In any large American city, this house would be a suburban, upper-middle class home – but here in the town of Antunez, located in a mainly rural area of the Mexican southwestern state of Michoacan, it seems much grander, certainly in stark contrast with the adobe houses next door.
“This is now our barracks,” says a vigilante who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. “Some of our guys sleep and eat here. Some took the weapons that used to belong to the trafficker.” When we visited, half-a-dozen vigilantes stood guard outside.
Our hosts are a group of local men who rose up in arms against the Knights Templar, a rather romantic name for a criminal organization known not only for drug trafficking, but also for terrorizing people in this part of Mexico through extortion, executions, rape and murder.
The drug war in Mexico, which has been raging since former President Felipe Calderon started fighting back against the cartels in 2006, has claimed 100,000 lives. States like Michoacan are largely in the control of the cartels: 90 per cent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. does so through Mexico. The country is also a major supplier of marijuana, methamphetamine and, more recently, heroin.
The mansion’s owner, Efrain Isaac Rosales, also known as “El Tucan” (The Toucan), fled on January 10 when the town rose up in arms against him and his gunmen. They say he left so fast that he even abandoned some of his weapons in the house.
Rosales is a lieutenant under the leadership of Servando Gomez, also known as “La Tuta,” the head of the Knights Templar cartel. Some 20 towns have been retaken from the drug gangs, according to the vigilantes, but Gomez, the former schoolteacher-turned-cartel leader, still holds a tight grip over Michoacan, ruling with intimidation and violence. He makes occasional public appearances, handing out money to the poor – he considers himself an altruist – and loudly trying to justify his presence in the state.
“[The Knights Templar] are a necessary evil,” he once told an assembled crowd. “Fortunately – or unfortunately – we are here. If we weren’t, another group would come.”
On a decorative opening in the foyer of his lieutenant’s former residence, standing next to a modern art statue, is a mini 14, an assault rifle that fires .223-caliber bullets like an AR15, left behind by Rosales when he fled. This one had a 30-round magazine. The rifle sits next to a bulletproof vest.
From the foyer, a hallway connects to a living area with a large, dark brown leather recliner in the middle. On the wall, there’s a rack for a large flat screen TV; but the vigilante groups have looted the house already and many pieces of furniture are missing, giving the residence the feeling of a house whose owners have just moved out.
It’s still clean, with the exception of the bathrooms, but the beds are unmade and there are pieces of furniture and objects in odd places.
The vigilantes are giving us access to what was believed to be Rosales’ “family home.” It’s hard to miss that the house shares two walls with the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church is also painted in similar colors: bright yellow and white.
This is not the only property the vigilantes have occupied that used to belong to the cartel lieutenant. He also owned a nearby ranch called “La Ilusion” (The Illusion), which is surrounded by grapefruit trees and hundreds of hectares of avocado trees, the fruit of which has made the state of Michoacan known around the world.
The vigilantes also confiscated a couple of vehicles that were left at the property: a white, late-model, Dodge Ram pickup truck and a modified truck painted matt black. The latter was fitted with half-inch steel plates and shooting portals in the double cabin and in the back. It had signs of having been in a shootout, riddled with bullet holes on the driver’s side, the hood and the windshield.
The property also features a shed with white pillars and red tile roof covering a living area with grills and chairs leading to the lawn connecting to the two-level circular pool divided in the middle.
The vigilantes have been accused of looting the properties they have confiscated, and indeed some have been charged with excesses. But they are, by and large, treated as heroes by the people they have agreed to protect.
A vigilante in the nearby town of La Huerta, who covers his face with a ski mask and identifies himself as “Juan,” says they say they had no option but to rise up in arms to protect their people and lands. “If the government can’t help you, you have to help yourself,” Juan says. “All we want to do is just pick up the arms so that we can drive them away. After that we’re just going to put them down again.”
Juan speaks English with a southern American accent. He says he lived in North Carolina from the time he was eight years old and returned to Mexico when he was 20. He’s now 24 and a married father of two.
The federal government’s attitude towards the vigilante groups appears to be changing too. Once the army and police would round up the irregulars: now the authorities appear to want to legalize them, freeing them up to fight the cartels.
Hipolito Mora, the leader of yet another vigilante group in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, says they have kept the movement against organized crime with the same resources the Knights Templar used to attack them in the past.
“With the same resources that used to belong to the Knights Templar, their ranches and properties, we’re financing this movement,” Mora says. “We did it at first and we continue to do so.”
He remains philosophical about the dangers in which he has placed himself. “I am not afraid. We are all going to die anyway.”
The vigilantes are also returning property they say the Knights Templar stole from local people including ranches, lime orchards, wells, farming machinery and vehicles.
The same morning we spoke to Mora, Grace Villa, a town resident, visited to personally thank him for allowing her and her family to recover their lime orchards.
“I think they’re doing the right thing,” Villa says, “I think it was a very brave thing to do because they stood up for everybody.”
Her family, Villa says, had to flee after 30 armed men showed up at their property demanding the title. “They wanted to charge the people who picked lemons and they wanted to charge people who owned houses. The drug cartels were just sucking the money out of everybody and it was just going too far.”