Faced with the government’s failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan’s vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the US border, a number of civic, business and church groups have pressured mostly the federal government to implement more effective crime fighting strategies. There have been some success stories, but most of these civic efforts have come up short.1

It is in this context of frustration with the government and a lack of effective non-violent models that the self-defense groups have emerged in Michoacan. These groups embody both a cry for help and a threat to peace. They include a wide range of actors, from earnest civilians scrambling to save their families and businessmen trying to protect their livelihoods, to criminal organizations seeking to take advantage amid a perceived power vacuum. And they illustrate a central problem that remains unanswered in Mexico’s current situation: how can the state fortify its weak local security and judicial forces and repair the social contract with its citizens in these crime-ridden areas?

Though by many measures a backwater, with only three percent of Mexico’s territory, four percent of its population and two percent of the national economy, Michoacan has held a crucial place in the country’s political and social history.2 The state has fewer than five million inhabitants, two-thirds of them living in cities and towns. It comprises 23,000 square miles and is about as large and nearly as mountainous as West Virginia. But as an agricultural hub with access to the sea, varying terrain and connections to important population centers, Michoacan serves as an important area for transit, as well as farming for the local market and for international export.

This article is the first in a three-part report on Michoacan’s Militias produced by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and InSight Crime. See full report here.

Anchored by the market city of Apatzingan, today’s so-called Tierra Caliente, or “hot land,” is home to some 500,000 people and, apart from the production and trafficking of illegal drugs, is the country’s second most important producer of limes, primary source of avocados and font of a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. Trade with Asia in recent years has converted the once minor Pacific Coast port of Lazaro Cardenas into one of Mexico’s most important commercial gateways and a major steel-making center.3

The Apatzingan valley’s agricultural potential was developed early last century by Italian immigrant Dante Cusi, who bought out distressed hacienda owners shortly before the outbreak of the Mexican revolution. Settling into what is now the town of Nueva Italia, 20 miles east of Apatzingan, Cusi built pipelines and irrigation canals to bring water from the high mountains 30 miles to the north, transforming his arid lands into vast rice fields. Migrants poured to the area from across Michoacan and neighboring states, creating a large pool of poorly paid field laborers.

In the 1930s, President Lazaro Cardenas, a Michoacan native who had served previously as the state’s governor, confiscated the huge haciendas owned by Cusi and others in the Apatzingan area. Cárdenas converted the Apatzingan valley into a showcase of the collectivized farming system, creating a politicized rural population in the Tierra Caliente.

Many of the ejido lands have been privatized in the past 20 years, creating a class of prosperous farmers in the Tierra Caliente. But Michoacan remains one of the poorest and least developed states in Mexico. The United Nations places it in the bottom third in terms of the human development index.4 And many in the valley today work low paying jobs: caring for orchards, picking fruit or working seasonally in the packing sheds. Not surprisingly, the Tierra Caliente and the rest of Michoacan have been a major source of migrants to Mexico’s cities and the United States since the 1940s, with the Los Angeles area, Chicago and Texas primary destinations. Some of that same migrant labor has also fed criminal groups.

Indeed, the region has a long history of violence. Though it played a less central role in the 1910 Revolution, Michoacan nevertheless suffered years of fighting by militias of competing loyalties and agendas. The state’s more prominent “revolutionaries” — in particular Jose Ines Chavez Garcia, nicknamed the “Scourge of Michoacan” — operated more like common vandals than soldiers, plundering and murdering at will, burning villages and entire towns.5

More recently, Michoacan has become home to a number of criminal organizations, some of which made their reputation in much the same way as the current “self-defense” groups did. Drug producing and trafficking gangs have flourished in Michoacan since the 1970s. Like other states along the Pacific Coast’s Sierra Madre range, Michoacan’s lengthy coastline and remote mountains make the state ideal for importing, producing and trafficking illicit drugs. Marijuana and opium poppies serve as important cash crops in the remote mountains and valleys, especially in the ranges surrounding the Apatzingan Valley and in the Sierra Madre.6

DTOs and the Battle for Michoacan

In the 1990s there were two major organizations operating in the state. A clan known as the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) controlled coastal areas near the port of Lazaro Cardenas, while the Valencia family gang, also known as the Milenio Cartel, controlled much of the Tierra Caliente. The Valencias smuggled their US bound drugs through Nuevo Laredo on the South Texas border, and forged strong relationships with the Gulf Cartel, which dominated that part of the border, and the Zetas, the armed wing of Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas.

Sometime around the year 2000, a Valencia associate named Carlos Rosales Mendoza broke with the Valencia family and formed a new organization he called La Empresa, or The Company. Rosales, who was a close associate of Cardenas, requested his help in driving the Valencias, the BLO and other gangs out of Michoacan. Cardenas dispatched the Zetas, who were at that time his personal army of assassins and enforcers.7

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The Zetas, who were largely ex-military personnel, recruited locals and trained them in how to manage weapons, collect intelligence, ambush rivals, control territory and other tactical approaches unique among criminal groups at the time. However, the Zetas were also predators of the worst sort, kidnapping and extorting local businessmen and residents, and flooding the local market with drugs. Profits on activities like extortion were rising. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had led to a five-fold increase in avocado exports, increasing the take of legitimate and illegitimate businesses alike.8

Following the arrests of Cardenas and Rosales, a group of Rosales’ lieutenants split from the Zetas to form their own organization.9 Fittingly, they called it La Familia Michoacana, an homage to their native land, which they vowed to defend with their lives. They also claimed to protect the local businesses and residents from “foreign” incursions and abuses. For a time, La Familia did just that, expelling the Zetas and their satellite organizations and taking firm control of the state. The organization also formally declared itself to the world in September 2006 by rolling the decapitated heads of five alleged rapists, and Zetas members, on the dance floor of a gangster-frequented disco in Uruapan.

“La Familia doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocent people,” a message left with the heads advised. “Only those who deserve to die, die. This is divine justice.”

The violence prompted President Calderon, a Michoacan native who had barely won his election amid charges of fraud, to send federal forces into Michoacan a few weeks after taking office in December 2006. Through the next four years Calderon sent troops and federal police into the state seven times, achieving only temporary and limited success. The president’s efforts to decapitate the political side of La Familia also failed. Beginning in late May 2009, federal police arrested 38 local and state officials — including a dozen mayors, many from towns where the militias now operate — in a sweeping dragnet that became known as the “Michoacanazo.” The officials were accused of collaborating with La Familia Michoacana. But all were released for “lack of evidence” within the following 16 months.10

Meanwhile, the two leaders of the group, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno and Jesus “El Chango” Mendez, divvied up Michoacan. Mendez took control of the western half, including Apatzingan and the nearby towns of Buenavista Tomatlan and Tepalcatepec, near the border with Jalisco state. Moreno, considered the more brutal of the two, reigned in the northern and western reaches, including the state capital of Morelia and the port city of Lazaro Cardenas.11 Under Moreno’s guidance, La Familia also developed a spiritually-infused code of ethics demanding that members treat locals, especially women, with respect and abstain from drug use, drinking and other vices. The group encoded these rules in a mini-bible that members toted around with them. Their religious ethos made them more difficult to infiltrate and gave them an in with potential soldiers, especially former drug addicts who they would readily recruit from half-way houses.

“These were boys that didn’t use drugs, that we made sure were good in every sense of the word and that they managed things well, that they didn’t go around kidnapping, that they acted properly,” La Familia’s other leader, Mendez, would tell interrogators later. “They were very disciplined.”12

However, once the state was under its purview, La Familia began perpetrating the same transgressions as the previous landlords. Extortion and kidnappings became commonplace. They also expanded their portfolio, importing precursor chemicals from Asia and Europe through Lazaro Cardenas and using them to manufacture methamphetamine in laboratories across the state.13 And they began openly battling federal police and troops. In 2009, the group killed 21 police across the state in just a few days following the arrest of a top Moreno lieutenant. The bloodiest attacks were in the areas that Moreno supposedly controlled, including Zitacuaro, near the border with the state of Mexico.

With more money at stake and pressure from the government and rival groups increasing, tensions also rose within the organization. During a pitched battle with government forces in December 2010, La Familia founder Moreno disappeared and the government pronounced him dead. Following Moreno’s disappearance, Mendez struggled for control of La Familia with two Moreno lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez and Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte. Seeking to make the break definitive, the latter two renamed their faction the Knights Templar, bringing with them the same rules of conduct and religious ideology developed by Moreno.

SEE ALSO: Knights Templar News and Profiles

Mendez and the Knights fought one another through the winter and spring of 2011, capped by a three-day battle near Buenavista Tomatlan that killed many and drove residents into shelters in Apatzingan and other towns. Mendez lost, and many of his gunmen switched sides to join La Tuta and Plancarte. In May 2011, federal troops attacked a large group of Mendez’s remaining loyalists in a rural area just across the Jalisco state line near Tepalcatepec, killing 15 suspected members of the group and arresting 36 others. The attacks on La Familia began what has been the group’s steady decline from national prominence, though it remains a powerful force in Peña Nieto’s home state of Mexico, including many of the poor suburbs of Mexico City.

The Knights Templar, on the other hand, have grown stronger. Moreno, who had survived the 2010 attack and gone deeper underground, rallied and began expanding his reach into La Familia territory in the Tierra Caliente. In all, the group gained criminal dominance in two-thirds of Michoacan’s townships. In some areas, their control was total: they anointed local politicians and controlled municipal budgets; they used the local police as their first line of defense and their arms purveyors; their soldiers extorted and often raped with impunity. They also allied themselves with other criminal groups such as the Gulf Cartel to expel other “foreign” groups such as the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion – CJNG). By 2012, the Knights Templar’s control of Michoacan was nearly equivalent to that of La Familia at the peak of its power.

Their ascendance, however, coincided with major multi-agency task force operations aimed at hobbling Michoacan criminals’ smuggling and distribution networks in the United States. Project Delirium in 2011 led to the arrest of 221 people across the US. Operation Knight Stalker, in December 2012, took down another 30. While the methamphetamine and other drugs seized by U.S. agents were quickly replaceable, the distribution networks proved harder to rebuild. Seeking new revenue, Knights Templar cells began increasing their extortion, kidnappings and outright takeover of lime and avocado orchards. Gang levies were imposed on everything from limes, avocados and cattle to the square footage of homes and businesses.14

“They took a piece of everything,” Hipolito Mora, founder of the first self-defense group of La Ruana, a town of 10,000 tucked among the irrigated lime groves about 30 miles west of Apatzingan, told a radio interviewer last May. “I got tired of it and said I had to do something for my people.”15

*This article is the first in a three-part report on Michoacan’s Militias produced by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and InSight Crime. See full report here. Download pdf here.


[1] Steven Dudley and Sandra Rodriguez, “Civil Society, the Government and the Development of Citizen Security,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, August 2013. Available at: https://wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Dudley_Rodriguez_Civil_Society_Border.pdf

See also David Shirk, Duncan Wood, Eric L. Olson, et al., “Building Resilient Communities in Mexico: Civic Responses to Crime and Violence,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, March 2014. Available at: https://wilsoncenter.org/publication/resilient-communities-mexico-2014

[2] Data from the Mexican government’s statistical agency, INEGI. Available at: https://www.inegi.org.mx/

[3] Dave Graham, “Chinese Iron Trade Fuels Clash With Mexican Drug Cartel,” Reuters, 1 January 2014.

[4] United Nations Development Programme, “Informe sobre el desarrollo humano: Michoacan 2007.” Available at: https://www.undp.org.mx/IMG/pdf/03IDHmich_cap1.pdf

[5] Miguel Estrada, “La historia de Jose Ines Chavez Garcia,” Agencia Mexicana de Noticias, 29 September 2010. Available at: https://www.agenciamn.com/index2.php?option=com_content&id=2988

[6] Dudley Althaus interview with Coalcoman Mayor Rafael Garcia, May 2013.

[7] Arturo Rodriguez Garcia, “Por las trincheras de Tierra Caliente,” Proceso, 3 Noviembre 2013. Available at: https://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=357111eso

[8] “Free Trade on Trial,” The Economist, 30 December 2003. Available at: https://www.economist.com/node/2312920

[9] Dudley: need your help here. La Razon, June 23, 2011

[10] Ely Castillo, “Libre, ex-edil de Mugica, ultimo involucrado del “Michoacanazo,” El Universal, 13 April 2011. Available at https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/80095.html

[11] Carlos Quiróz, “El Chango Mendez estaba rodeado por sus ’12 apóstoles,’” Excelsior, 22 June 2011. Available at: https://www.excelsior.com.mx/node/746637

[12] “Testimonio del Chango Mendez,” La Razón, 23 June 2011. Available at: https://www.razon.com.mx/spip.php?article81497

[13] Althaus interview with security analyst in Michoacan, May 2013.

[14] Dudley Althaus interview with Coalcoman Mayor Rafael Garcia, May 2013.

[15] Interview by Luis Cardenas, “Responde Hipolito Mora, No le tengo miedo a El Tio Ni a Nadie, El Tio me da Risa: Le reponde al Tio,” MVS Radio Network, 13 May 2013. Available at: https://narcconoticias.blogspot.mx/2013/05/audioentrevistano-le-tengo-miedo-el-tio.html

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...