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In the hot land, Mexicans just say no to drug cartels

Communities in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente are rising up against the drug-trafficking gangs that have terrorized them for years.

June 11, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

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."

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