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.
"I want to go away, I want to resign this job, because I wasn't made for this. I can't even ensure the safety of my own children, who are also in danger," Mayor Genaro Guizar said in an emotional interview with the Milenio television station.
Calderon's office declined to comment directly on the situation in the Tierra Caliente, but referred The Associated Press to a speech the president delivered this year in Michoacan emphasizing the importance of purging local, state and federal police forces of corruption in order to produce trustworthy agencies capable of investigating crimes and bringing suspects to trial.
The cartel's territory begins at the gates of the military base in the center of Apatzingan. Each of the five entrances is watched around the clock by the Knights Templar, as are virtually every highway exit, toll booth and village square, according to the soldiers.
The cartel consists largely of men from the Tierra Caliente, and they promote themselves as a mystic Christian order dedicated to protecting the population from abuse at the hands of the military and police. They have self-published at least two books and a variety of pamphlets collecting the sayings and memoirs of their leaders, most prominently the late Moreno, founder of their predecessor gang, La Familia.
Even the troops acknowledge the cartel has a substantial degree of local support due to its family networks, patronage of local communities and exploitation of citizens' anger at the government.
The cartel runs "training schools," including one in Apatzingan, that teach courses in leadership portraying cartel members as clean-living men of honor, steeped in Asian religion alongside Catholicism, and dedicated to protecting the people of Michoacan from a government they say is manipulated by a ultraconservative religious group known as El Yunque, or the Anvil.
According to cartel leaders, it is their duty to go against the government, saying Calderon used insecurity as a pretext for launching a bloody war.
"It has brought death and pain on thousands of homes," according to one book attributed to Moreno, whose philosophy was adopted by Knights Templar after the downfall of La Familia. "It was my obligation, with my comrades, to mount this fight. It's the only way to guarantee a change in our country."
Under Mexican law, soldiers can't formally investigate crimes and can only stop criminal activity that occurs directly in front of them. So they are limited to patrolling, responding to tips about crimes in progress, searching cars at roadside checkpoints and hunting for meth labs and marijuana fields by helicopter and on foot.
Most officers in the 43rd Military Zone carry two radios, one encrypted for military communications, and the other to listen to the Knights Templar watching their men. They also carry laminated cards confiscated from cartel operatives printed with hundreds of the gang's radio codes. The code "53" refers to the army, "69" to the U.S.-made Humvees and "56" to military intelligence operatives.
One army officer said he had heard Templar operatives checking the status of roads all the way to Mexico City, some six hours drive east.
On Monday, the army said, soldiers with the 43rd Military Zone, raided a ranch named "The Horses" in village outside Apatzingan that is believed to be the property of Enrique "Kiki" Plancarte Solis, co-leader of the Knights Templar along with Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez.
The troops were attacked with gunfire and grenades and returned fire, killing one of the attackers, the army said. Inside the ranch the troops found more than 28 pounds of marijuana, a pound of crystal meth, a smaller amount of cocaine, dozens of grenades, anti-tank rockets, pistols and rifles, including a powerful 50-caliber sniper rifle, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
The soldiers have taken down 90 labs so far this year, but the number of arrests they've made — 95 — does not reflect the amount of criminal activity they're aware of.
"All we can do is keep working, keep patrolling, moving through the countryside and the streets, and try to find them from time to time," Patino said.
The army says it is well-received by people in the Tierra Caliente, though Michoacan's state commission on human rights says complaints against the army and federal police in Apatzingan have risen sharply, from 69 in 2008 to 391 last year.
Riding in groups of six or seven, the riflemen of the 51st Battalion scan the traffic and the roadside from benches mounted in the backs of their pickups. In each truck, one soldier mans a heavy weapon mounted on a pivot behind the roof of the cab.
They pull onto a dirt road and head to a series of little towns that are home to some of the Knights Templar leadership, including the communally owned village of El Alcalde, where they stop at a yellow stucco house filled with new appliances and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped in barbed wire.
The gate is open, and the soldiers walk up to the open windows, pulling aside the shades and peering inside. The house is cleaned every day but rarely occupied. They have no doubt that it's owned by a high-ranking member of the Knights Templar, Gonzalez said.
Each of the little towns in the area has such a house, newly built, assiduously maintained and filled with luxury finishes, thick carved-wood doors, marble floors, faux-Greek concrete columns, and immaculately tended rose bushes. Most sit on high ground at the edge of the towns, offering vistas of the roads and other houses. The money that paid for them didn't come just from avocado trees.
Outside of town, a shrine to La Familia founder Moreno Gonzalez sits atop a steep flight of concrete steps, dominating the road. Dozens of votive candles set on the chapel steps have been smashed to shards, the glass panels of the chapel doors are broken and deep pockmarks, apparently from bullets, mar the doors.
A black "Z' has been spray-painted on the front of the chapel, the trademark of the paramilitary Zetas cartel that battled the Knights Templar and La Familia before being largely driven out by the Knights.
Gonzalez said he believes the Knights Templar left the vandalism unrepaired as a way of inspiring their followers to maintain vigilance against future Zeta incursions.
Soldiers say the Knights Templar extort protection money from nearly every legitimate business in the Tierra Caliente, including at least three taxes on the region's famous avocados — one on the owners of the fields based on the area they own, one charged per ton on the middlemen who buy the crop and a third for exporters based on every kilogram of avocados.
The cartel also taxes Michoacan's lemon farmers as well as urban stores and markets.
"They've come as far as fixing the price of a tortilla or a kilo of meat," Gonzalez said. "They give the order that everyone is going to sell it for 60 pesos and all of butchers adjust their price to 60 pesos a kilo."
The military has found ledgers with budgets for road maintenance in rural areas. Around El Alcalde, in the neighboring towns of Guanajatillo, Moreno's reputed birthplace, and Los Laureles, roads are notably smoother than elsewhere, with well-tended culverts and surrounding fields of freshly planted and rigorously cared-for sorghum.
Gonzalez says local people have reported that the Knights Templar have planted hundreds of acres of the crop, and the equipment in the fields is expensive and new, including a shiny green John Deere combine harvester. Following the trail of funds earned from criminal activity falls to civilian prosecutors and investigators, and the soldiers say they see virtually no evidence that authorities are tracking the Knight Templars' money.
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