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Autodefensas

The "Freed" Towns

By JAIRO MARíN

Enthusiasm is contagious. A convoy of men showing off their high-caliber guns arrives at a town and announces its “liberation” from the reign of terror dictated by the Caballeros Templarios cartel.

The reaction of the population determines the tenor of the reception. In some cases, the residents exit effusively to greet the self-defense men, bestowing upon them the status of hero. In others, clearly showing fear, some timid faces can barely be discerned at a few half-opened windows.

More than 20 towns in Michoacan have been “liberated” by the self-defense, throughout last year.

For years the inhabitants of Tecaltepec in Michoacan suffered extortions and abuses at the hands of the Templarios. Doctor Jose Manuel Mireles says it was the rape of his women that broke the camel’s back. He recounts that drug traffickers in the streets would say to their gunmen, “Bring me that woman,” without caring whether she was married or had children.

The medical surgeon abandoned his scalpel and stethoscope and grabbed a gun. During two years, he and his neighbors met secretly to devise a strategy “to see how we can rid ourselves of these people. But we never had the courage to do anything, until that day.

On February 24, 2013, they declared their independence. The Templarios responded with armed attacks, which—thanks to the tenacity of the residents—became more and more sporadic.

The model of bravery in Tecaltepec began to be copied in other towns that suffered the same scourge. Doctor Mireles became a spokesperson and coordinator of the self-defense groups for that area.

On January 4, 2014, while Mireles and other leaders were flying over enemy territory, the small plane that transported them suffered a mechanical failure and forced the pilot to make an emergency landing. One person died and four others were injured, among them Dr. Mireles, who suffered cuts to his head and dislocated his jaw, in addition to seven fractured ribs and two vertebra.

After almost two months of absence, Dr. Mireles reappeared with 48 screws and metal plates on the right side of his face to celebrate the first anniversary of the “liberation” of his town.

He recognizes that he is not exempt from feeling fear. “I fear the solitary hunters—those I do. A solitary gunman is someone who pulls up close in a motorcycle and kills you.”

Despite the apprehension, the movement continues. A caravan of some 300 vehicles prepares to take on the population of Ario de Rosales, the next parade of the liberating caravan.

One of the uniformed men describes what he is carrying with him. “This is a goat horn…. I’m bringing my loaders to supply me with bullets. Bringing my walkie-talkie for any critical situation. This is a great .38 pistol.”

According to Margarita Solano of Southern Pulse, an intelligence company in Mexico City, the self-defense groups in Michoacan are there to stay. “It is an army that grows daily and, far from diminishing, they are proliferating and organizing in other parts.”

The self-defense is a well-armed army that is growing daily.

On February 22, self-defense groups entered Ario de Rosales to liberate it and declare it territory free of the Templarios. Some of the inhabitants dared to exit their homes to greet them. The takeover happened without need of firing a single shot.

Upon their arrival, they found the presence of the police and the army. In addition, they had aerial support from the federal government.

Currently, more than 20 of Michoacan’s 113 towns have been “liberated” by self-defense groups.

Amid the euphoria over the arrival of the caravan, Jose Diaz—one of the residents of Ario de Rosales—said the arrival of the self-defense groups made a notable difference in his town. “I do feel a little more safe and I’m more calm.” There are others who prefer to be more cautious and hope the authorities will return to them the sense of security they had lost to organized crime.