IT WAS WINTER in the pocket of Mexico known as Tierra Caliente, the Hot Land. The sky was cloudless and the sun?s rays were casting flickering reflections off the convoy coming into focus: two behemoth SUVs, one black, one silver, passengers invisible behind tinted windows, a police pickup bringing up the rear. The vehicles kicked up clouds of dust as they pulled to a stop. The doors swung open. Boots, shoes, and sandals connected with the dirt. More than half a dozen well-armed men, and one woman, stepped out.
They weren?t the most imposing gunslingers in the world. Most wore basic navy blue polo shirts with white screen-printed badges on the chest. Some were middle-aged with considerable bellies lapping over their belts. Still, their firepower ? mostly AR-15 assault rifles ? was considerable. Several wore bulletproof vests strapped with ammunition. One of the men, the fittest of the bunch, dressed in khaki cargo pants with dark wraparound sunglasses and a sidearm strapped to his hip, had the swagger of an American military contractor escorting some important diplomat in a foreign war.
The martial demeanor made sense. Guard duty was exactly what the group was doing. Their cargo stepped out of an armored Chevrolet: a short, stocky man, 60 years old, with a close-cropped gray beard and a white Panama hat. His name was Hip?lito Mora Ch?vez. In 2013, he kicked off an armed citizens? rebellion against a cult-like drug cartel in his home state of Michoac?n, the geographic launching point on Mexico?s Pacific coast for much of the methamphetamine trafficked to the United States.
They called themselves autodefensas, self-defense groups. For a moment, their uprising was Mexico?s biggest story. For some, they symbolized a courageous effort on the part of ordinary citizens to accomplish what the government was unable or unwilling to do, dismantling a notorious criminal organization that had terrorized the Hot Land for years. For others, they were unaccountable vigilantes representing a dangerous slide into anarchic chaos.
More than three years into the fight, things are not looking good for Mora and his circle. Riven with the same criminal infiltration he sought to drive from the region and divided by a program of government co-optation, the movement Mora started is now a shadow of what it once was. In the winter of 2014, his son was gunned down in a ferocious shootout with members of a newly deputized force. Mora has been locked in a blood feud with the man he holds responsible ever since. He has come to see himself as a man deeply wronged by the state, left for dead amid a sea of enemies. One by one, he?s moved family members out of the country, distancing himself from those he loves most as he hunkers down at home, waiting for what comes next.
The autodefensas symbolized a courageous effort on the part of ordinary citizens to accomplish what the government was unable or unwilling to do.
As he approached, Mora showed no sign of the stress one might associate with being a front-line general on the losing side of Mexico?s drug war. The 9?mm pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans was discreetly hidden under his blue guayabera. Introductions were made at the tall iron gate that leads to his front door. From behind his wire-frame glasses, Mora made direct eye contact. He listened to our reasons for coming, nodded occasionally, and then smiled politely, extending his hand and inviting us inside.
Far away from the Hollywood intrigue and rock-star treatment spun up by January?s re-arrest of drug kingpin Joaqu?n ?El Chapo? Guzm?n, in small towns and rural communities across Mexico, the drug war today often plays out in tragic local stories rarely acknowledged by the world at large. The Hot Land is one of those places. Over the course of three days, the embattled autodefensa leader described how his state fell under criminal control, how he started an armed movement in response, and how it all came apart.
The story Mora told was part of a broader narrative, relayed by other anti-cartel fighters, reporters in the Hot Land, and human rights investigators in the state capital during two weeks of interviews across Michoac?n in early December. Together they provide a snapshot of the frustrations and complexities wrought by more than a decade of violence in one of Mexico?s toughest places, offering a window into the changing face of a conflict to which the United States is inextricably linked.
URROUNDED BY MOUNTAINS, the Hot Land is a lowland stretch of central Mexico that includes southeast Michoac?n and spills over into the northern reaches of the neighboring state of Guerrero. Five hundred miles from the U.S. border, the region?s rural?communities and coastal cities are crucial junctures in the supply train of drugs flowing north. Michoac?n produces tons of U.S.-bound methamphetamine, while Guerrero, which in recent years has served as Mexico?s largest producer of opium paste, plays a fundamental role in fueling the United States? current heroin crisis. Throughout the region the splintered factions of once-sprawling cartels, fractured through years of infighting and battles with the federal government, have been reborn into warring constellations constantly vying for the most profitable turf.
The criminal groups that dominate the Hot Land engage in more than drug trafficking; they also feed off the local population through kidnapping and extortion. In some areas, their control of local political power is virtually absolute, and the line between the authorities and the criminals has all but vanished. It was in Iguala, a midsize city in Guerrero connecting Hot Land traffickers to the wider world, that one such group and its?partners in local law enforcement attacked and disappeared 43 college students in September 2014, culminating in one of the most shocking crimes in modern Mexican history; the unsuccessful search for the students uncovered a vast number of clandestine graves across the state, underscoring an epidemic of disappearances that has plunged the region into fear. Last year, independent international human rights experts tasked with investigating the case suggested the students might have unwittingly interrupted a shipment of drugs en route to the American Midwest.
Conditions in the Hot Land are a reminder of just how large the U.S. looms over Mexico?s most troubled spaces, serving not only as the drug traffickers? No. 1?customer, but also as a key source of weapons, a bank for illicit profits, and a symbol of hope for those seeking to break free from the slim prospects that color life in areas where unemployment, corruption, and impunity flourish. More than 4 million people call Michoac?n home. A nearly equal number of Michoacanos live north of the Rio Grande, many in California, and the state typically leads Mexico in overall numbers of residents emigrating north. Over the holidays, cities like Apatzing?n, the de-facto capital of the Hot Land, fill with Michoacanos coming home to spend hard-earned American dollars on loved ones.
Mora lives in La Ruana, a dusty little community where festive ribbons hang over the central thoroughfare, casting crisscrossing shadows over the rutted roadway. In the rural areas that blanket much of his state, people make their livings in fishing, mining, and forestry. Agriculture, however, is king. Two products in particular have become synonymous with the state: avocado and lime. Michoac?n is among the world?s largest producers and exporters of both, with much of the product shipped to the U.S. Successful avocado and lime growers are often important power brokers in the Hot Land, where the federal government is seen as remote and Mexico?s centuries-old cacique power structure, in which local strongmen reign, continues to dominate. Mora came into the lime business through his older brother. With the exception of a few years living in California, he has spent most of his adult life tending to his family?s ranch, a 14-hectare spread of rolling hills lined with lime trees.
For a man who believes a slew of cartel assassins and a significant portion of the government would like to see him dead, Mora is hardly in hiding. His tan, one-story home is easy to find. There?s a makeshift patio shaded by a patchwork canopy of tarps in front of his neighbors? place, the most prominent of which bears a big sun-bleached image Mora used during a failed bid for public office. His tile-floored living room is bright, airy, and clean. Mixed among the family photos hanging on?his walls are black-and-white portraits of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, luminaries of the Mexican Revolution.
Nearly a hundred years after Villa and Zapata made their mark, Mexico went to war again. This time, the fight began in Mora?s state, when a newly elected president, Felipe Calder?n, dispatched thousands of troops to Michoac?n as part of a sweeping anti-cartel offensive in December 2006, the first stage of a campaign that would include more than 96,000 members of Mexican security forces deployed to at least a half-dozen states.
As we sat in his living room, Mora voiced support for Calder?n, whose offensive is considered by many a colossal failure that plummeted Mexico into an era of incredible violence. ?I know there are a lot of people who criticize him very strongly,? he explained. ?I know there were collateral effects. I know people who died in this war who didn?t have to die. But the majority of the people killed were bad, criminal people, as well as some federales and police ? this may sound bad, but that?s their work.?
?In a war, you have to have deaths on both sides,? Mora said. He believes Calder?n struck fear into criminals. ?I think he did the right thing,? he said. ?And I think it was good.?
It?s a controversial position. The aftershocks of Calder?n?s military campaign are synonymous with the darkest period in recent Mexican history ? according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 150,000 people have been killed in Mexico since the war began; at least 26,000 others have disappeared. Still, it makes sense that Mora, a man who took up arms himself, would support an armed confrontation with criminal groups. He and Calder?n were similar in that respect. The difference is that Calder?n went to war with the full weight of the Mexican military at his back and Mora went to war with a rag-tag crew and a 30-year-old shotgun.
OR MOST OF the 20th century, Mexico?s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI in its Spanish acronym, managed the nation?s drug trafficking. So long as the traffickers paid their dues to the appropriate corrupt official, business could continue and the criminals kept their impact on the local population to a minimum. ?I could have gone out at night and slept in the streets,? Mora recalled. Nobody would have bothered him. That quiet came to end about 14 years ago.
In 2000, after 71 years in power, the PRI lost its hold on the presidential palace, rattling Mexico?s narco-political infrastructure to its core. As change swept through the criminal underworld, the body count in Mexico mounted. In September 2006, armed men in masks burst into the Sol y Sombra, a popular dance hall in the city of Uruapan, some 2 1/2?hours northeast of Mora?s hometown. The gunmen fired into the air and then emptied a large plastic bag onto the dance floor. Five severed heads spilled out. They were accompanied by a handwritten message announcing the identity and intentions of those responsible ? a group calling itself La Familia Michoacana, The Family of Michoac?n. ?La Familia doesn?t kill for money, doesn?t kill women, doesn?t kill innocent people ? only those who deserve to die,? their infamous message read. ?This is divine justice.?
The night is often cited as an introduction to the horrors that came after: the bodies strung from bridges, the theatrical posing of dismembered corpses, the gruesome displays turned routine. Three months later, in December 2006, Calder?n, a native of Michoac?n, declared his ?war,? deploying troops to his home state. He had been in office just two weeks. In La Familia, Calder?n found himself up against a cartel unlike anything Mexico had seen before. The cartel?s strategy was uniquely tailored to Michoac?n. In a state with a long history of armed struggles, La Familia portrayed its members?as homegrown vigilantes facing down predatory outsiders like the Zetas, a cartel born out of U.S.-trained Mexican special forces bent on polluting the state by selling meth locally, rather than trafficking it north.
La Familia coupled its professed commitment to the people of Michoac?n with religious fanaticism. The cartel?s spiritual core was a man named Nazario Moreno Gonz?lez. An avid comic book fan who grew up poor in Michoac?n, Moreno fantasized about having the power to speak to animals.?As a teenager in the 1980s, he emigrated to the U.S., living in California and Texas. He loved Braveheart and The Godfather and consumed the writings of John Eldredge, a Colorado Springs-based evangelical author whose 2001 bestseller, Wild at Heart, calls on Christian men to reclaim their masculinity and embrace a ?muscular? interpretation of the faith.
Indicted on drug charges by a federal grand jury in McAllen, Texas, Moreno fled home to the Hot Land in 2003, where he joined the highest level of La Familia?s command structure. Moreno had a number of nicknames back home ? including ?El M?s Loco,? the Craziest One, for his temper ? but to most, he was simply known as El Chayo. He was a prolific writer, publishing reflections on religion, politics, and manhood that were distributed widely and freely throughout the region.
El Chayo put a premium on discipline. His men, who dutifully carried around his writings, were officially prohibited from using meth, and El Chayo developed a reputation for lethally enforcing his edicts. Under El Chayo and a handful of other generals, La Familia wormed its way into virtually every corner of life in the region. The cartel built schools and drug rehabilitation clinics ? where it?molded recovering patients into brainwashed recruits ? and its?numbers swelled into the thousands.
In December 2010, the Calder?n administration, which had appeared completely unable to halt the cartel?s advance, finally seemed to catch a break, with officials announcing that El Chayo had been killed in a two-day gun battle involving 2,000 government forces. The government trumpeted his death as evidence of La Familia?s decline. According to the official story, El Chayo?s men dragged their boss?s bullet-ridden corpse into the mountains. A shrine was built on a hill overlooking Apatzing?n; inside was a statue of El Chayo monitored by surveillance cameras. Soon, other monuments and statues cropped up across the Hot Land. Stories surfaced of a ghostly El Chayo roaming the mountains of Michoac?n dressed in white and performing baptisms. People began referring to him as Saint Nazario.
El Chayo had indeed survived his shootout with the government. Along with his most loyal cohorts, he created a new organization: Los Caballeros Templarios ? the Knights Templar. The cartel zealously embraced the iconography of their namesake, adorning themselves with red crosses and performing initiation rituals with medieval swords. The Templarios not only picked up where La Familia left off, they took the brazenness ? and bizarreness ? of organized crime in the Hot Land to new heights. El Chayo, meanwhile, assumed a legendary status, the un-killable rebel who not only defied the state but took it over from the inside out.
Along with the illegal economy in Michoac?n, the Templarios grabbed key chunks of the legal economy as well, including much of the state?s lucrative logging and mining industries. Taxi drivers were enlisted as lookouts, creating a vast intelligence network. Funeral homes were forced to provide free services to Templarios without paperwork. With local police and mayors under their control, cartel members managed property disputes and manipulated notaries to legitimize their theft of vehicles, land, and homes. They adjudicated local crimes and punished offenders publicly. People in Apatzing?n tell of accused criminals dragged into the city square by the Templarios, where they were stripped and paddled with a wooden board. Others were crucified.
In 2011, as the Templarios were rising to power, the state?s commission for human rights and?Michoac?n?s?University of San Nicol?s Hidalgo published a slim book titled El M?xico Que Yo Vivo ? The Mexico That I Live. The book contained dozens of drawings by Mexican school children, ages 7?to 12, who were asked to illustrate their state as they saw it. The first drawing showed a woman in a yellow dress being robbed at gunpoint, her hands in the air as she screamed for help. The second depicted federal police in a gunfight; a dead body was featured in the foreground next to an AK-47. The third also featured a corpse, this one riddled with bullet holes and lying in a pool of bright red blood. On and on they went. Of the 45 images the children drew, 35 reflected scenes of violence.
While the Templarios fancied themselves the arbiters of divine justice, the truth was that El Chayo?s men took what they wanted, when they wanted. Residents describe young women and girls routinely kidnapped by Templarios only to resurface months later, pregnant and discarded by the cartel.
?They were everything,? Mora recalled. ?Judges, lawyers, priests, communal officers, transit officials.?
FOR MORE THAN a decade, Mora watched as organized crime tightened its grip on the Hot Land, shaking down the low-wage lime pickers who make up much of the local workforce. ?Here, just like the rest of the region, the lime provides most of the work,? Mora said. During La Familia?s rise, the Hot Land experienced an agricultural boom in which the value of limes nearly doubled, thanks in large part to exports to the U.S. When the Templarios came in, they undertook a price-fixing campaign that strangled the local market. ?The Templarios called on four or five businessmen, owners in the lime-packing business,? Mora explained. ?They would call and tell them they?re going to cut limes when they want. Sometimes they?ll cut three times a week, sometimes twice, sometimes once.?
?There were times that we wouldn?t be allowed to work,? Mora said. ?Nobody dared say anything because they were murderers. They killed a lot of people and they threatened employers.?
Mora said he first considered fighting back against the cartel during the Calder?n administration, even traveling to Mexico City to seek an audience with the president. ?Nobody met with me,? he said. He returned to the Hot Land and began floating the idea of resistance among friends. ?No, forget it, if we do it, they?ll kill us,? his friends told him.
They had a point. The Templarios wouldn?t hesitate to reduce Mora and his collaborators ? or their family members ? to another bloody photo in the back pages of the local Apatzing?n crime coverage. But Mora couldn?t let it go, and for the next two years, he found himself returning again and again to the question of what could be done.
On December 1, 2012, the PRI returned to power in Mexico. The Calder?n era was over ? ?We wish you and your family?well,? the Templarios said in winking goodbye banners to the nation?s leader. The new president, Enrique Pe?a Nieto, sought to shift the international perception of Mexico away from the violence and focus instead on energy reforms, economic progress, and the nation?s bright future. Some Western media outlets enthusiastically embraced his message. A year after Pe?a Nieto assumed office, Time magazine famously featured the young president on its cover with the headline, ?Saving Mexico.?
The optimism was premature. While Mexico was beginning to see a nationwide reduction in drug-related murders when Pe?a Nieto took the reins, in certain areas violence was getting much worse. Michoac?n was in the midst of the greatest increase in homicides in the country, with a disproportionate amount of the bloodletting concentrated in the Hot Land. Mora, who had continued to agitate secretly for an insurgency, finally had a breakthrough. He convinced five friends ? ?people I?ve trusted all my life,? he said ? to join him for a clandestine meeting in an orchard.
?What are we going to do?? Mora recalled asking the men. ?Are we going to wait for them to kill us? To die of hunger??
For Mora, the answer was clear. ?We have to fight.?
The men, he said, were afraid.
?How are we going to do it if we don?t have weapons or money?? they asked.
Mora?s crew was unprepared for war with a well-armed criminal organization. Mora had just two shotguns, one of which his neighbor had fabricated three decades prior. Still, he managed to talk his friends into convening a public conversation on the security situation in La Ruana. They spoke to a local driver who cruised the streets making announcements of public interest over a megaphone and requested that he deliver a broadcast for them. On the morning of February 24, 2013, the driver headed out with the message: The people of this town are urgently invited to a meeting in the main garden at 10 a.m.
On motorcycles and bicycles, the newly formed force set off for homes owned or stolen by the Templarios.
With the wheels now in motion, a member of Mora?s inner circle called to say he was backing out. Mora asked his son Manuel, a 32-year-old bricklayer, if he would stand by his father. Mora?s close companion, Manuel asked only to run home to grab his pistol. As Mora rallied his posse, he told his men that if nobody chose to follow them, he would return home and wait for the Templarios to come for him. ?I know I won?t win,? he recalled saying, ?but I?ll die fighting them.?
By the time he arrived, the town square was full of people, many of them masked. Standing before the crowd, Mora confessed that he had called the meeting. ?I?m just as tired as you that they won?t let us work,? he said. He called on anyone with ?the courage to fight the Templarios? to step forward. Mora said roughly 250 people did so.
?Bring what you have to fight,? Mora encouraged the crowd, ?and we will go looking for them.? A handful of people returned with AR-15s and AK-47s, Mora said ? ?Because some lime producers have enough money to buy these? ? but most of the volunteers, if they had anything at all, were armed with simple single-shot bird hunting rifles or shotguns, weapons that some of the recruits had no idea how to use.
On motorcycles and bicycles, the newly formed force set off for homes owned or stolen by the Templarios. The crowd was overwhelming made up of ?pure cutters,? Mora said, workers at the very bottom of the lime production hierarchy. They descended on the Templario properties only to find them abandoned. ?We didn?t fire a shot,? Mora said. Wives and girlfriends of local Templarios who were present at his call to arms had tipped off the cartel members, he explained. The Templarios left behind weapons and a number of high-priced vehicles with Mexico City plates. ?Luxury cars,? Mora said. ?Mercedes-Benz, BMW.? His men now had transportation.
Hours after Mora pulled together his fighting force, a doctor in the nearby town of Tepalcatepec did the same. Jos? Manuel Mireles Valverde had spent a decade working odd jobs in Modesto, California. Unlicensed to practice medicine in the states, he volunteered at the Red Cross, translating medical materials for Spanish-speaking migrants. In 2007, Mireles and his family returned to a Michoac?n beset with violence. The Templarios beheaded three of their neighbors. As a physician, Mireles treated young women and girls regularly kidnapped and abused by the cartel. Tall and handsome at 55 with silver hair and a bushy mustache, Mireles became the most famous face of the autodefensa movement, known to fans, admirers, and enemies as The Doctor.
With Mora and Mireles at the helm, the uprising evolved rapidly. The Doctor?s people erected sandbag barricades at the entrances to his town and strung banners warning the Templarios to enter at their own risk. Mora appropriated a former Templario ranch as his base of operations. The months that followed were filled with gunfights, raids, and media appearances. The Templarios set up blockades to strangle communities where the autodefensas had sprung up, including La Ruana, triggering shortages of?food, gasoline, and medicine. Meanwhile, Michoacanos living in the U.S. returned home to join the fight.
In early April 2013, Templario gunmen ambushed lime workers from La Ruana on a protest march. A dozen people were killed in what became known as ?the massacre of the limoneros.? But the cartel?s wrath failed to stem the growing movement. Within a year, autodefensa units had emerged in 33 of Michoac?n?s 113 municipalities. Pressure from the armed citizens? groups fueled an unprecedented break-up of the Templarios? power in the state.
As the autodefensas expanded, some began appearing in public with assault rifles and other high-powered weapons prohibited under Mexican law without a military permit.
As the autodefensas expanded, some began appearing in public with assault rifles and other high-powered weapons prohibited under Mexican law without a military permit. Some observers questioned who was behind the movement. For many, it seemed that darker forces were pulling the strings ? after all, both La Familia and the Templarios had also wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of self-defense. Stories soon surfaced of abuses committed by autodefensas. In Cartel Land, a 2015 documentary about the movement, Mireles wrestles with the problem of criminal infiltration; he also appears to give an order to execute an alleged Templario. Mora also appears in the film, seated next to Mireles at a gathering of autodefensa leaders. ?Some of the leaders who make the rules are the first to break them,? Mora tells his comrades.
Mora maintains that the bulk of the weapons his forces acquired were taken from vanquished Templarios and their partners in law enforcement, though in the past he has also mentioned purchasing arms. As an example, he points to an early confrontation with the public security director for Buenavista, the larger municipality that encompasses La Ruana. According to Mora, it was widely known that the director, who ran the local police department, was under Templario control. ?The whole town knows, they take someone from here or around town and turn them over to the Templarios,? he said. ?They don?t care that the citizens see it.? Mora brought his entourage to the meeting with the director, who for his part, Mora remembers, showed up with 15 well-armed cops.?The Intercept was unable to independently confirm Mora?s claims.
?I want to talk to you to see if we can arrange something,? Mora recalled the director saying. ?Look, sir,? Mora replied, ?I?ve never met you, but I know who you are. I know who put you there and I know that you are a murderer. So there will be no settlement between us.? After a tense standoff with rifles raised, Mora said his men confiscated the police officers? weapons, bulletproof vests, and patrol vehicles. ?We locked up the director, who was a killer, and we left them,? Mora said. ?These were the weapons that people said were given to us by narcos.?
According to Mora, his corner of the movement was plagued with criminal infiltration from the beginning, and he was one of the few to stand up against its poisoning. After locking up the public security director, Mora said he was approached by a group of men who were friends of El Chayo and claimed to have turned on the drug lord?s organization. They told Mora he had no chance of defeating El Chayo?s killers on his own. ?We know them. We know the people that they have; the money that they have; the weapons that they have,? the men said. They proposed a solution: allow the Jalisco New Generation cartel, a rising power in the Mexican criminal landscape, to slip into the Hot Land and use their assassins to eliminate the Templarios.
Mora described his response as an unequivocal no. ?This is precisely why we took up arms, in order to end this filth,? he said. ?All of the cartels, from my very personal point of view, are the same. They?re killers.? Mora said he ultimately drove the men out of town. It would prove to be a temporary fix to an entrenched problem. And as Mora would soon learn, his troubles were just beginning.
HEN ENRIQUE PE?A NIETO assumed office as president of Mexico in 2012, he did not want to talk about the drug war. He had staked his candidacy on promises of reform; on the possibility of a Mexico freed from depictions in the international press of a nation defined by violence. That was an attractive idea. After all, the loss of life under Pe?a Nieto?s predecessor, Felipe Calder?n, who sent the military into the streets to do battle with organized crime, had been historic, with even the most conservative estimates of the dead and disappeared soaring well into the six-figure range. Pe?a Nieto avoided references to a sweeping, militarized campaign against drug cartels ? the defining feature of Calder?n?s tenure ? instead favoring more generalized references to public security.
Unfortunately, avoiding the subject didn?t make it go away. Within two years, Mexican security forces at all levels would be implicated in a series of grisly crimes. The most infamous was a coordinated and violent attack on a group of rural college students in September?2014; 43 of the students were disappeared during the assault ? their fates remain unknown. The students? disappearance ??and the state?s failure to find them ??became emblematic of a broken government. It was not, however, the first sign of trouble on the horizon for Pe?a Nieto?s newly installed government.
An insurgency was brewing in Mexico from the moment the young president took office, the culmination of decades? worth of institutional abandonment in a region known as the Hot Land in the state of Michoac?n. At the center of the storm was a lime grower named Hip?lito Mora Ch?vez, who had organized an armed uprising against a cultish drug cartel called Los Caballeros Templarios ? the Knights Templar. The spark Mora ignited, soon fanned by a charismatic doctor from a neighboring town, drew thousands of recruits during Pe?a Nieto?s first year, capturing Mexico?s imagination and headlines around the world. They called themselves autodefensas, self-defense groups, and they were clearing town after town of Templarios through 2013, appearing to succeed where millions of drug-war dollars had fallen short after seven bloody years.
Like other nations that have wrestled with the rise of irregular armed groups taking and holding land, Pe?a Nieto?s government employed a strategy of divide and conquer, leveraging co-optation to serve its own needs while leaving the roots of the problem largely untouched. Once engaged, the federal government deputized and deployed autodefensa elements to root out and destroy a criminal group that had been a thorn in its side for years ? regardless of clear evidence of criminal links within those elements. Those within the movement who failed to go along with the program were jailed or turned up dead, including some of the best-known?autodefensa?leaders.
For Mora, the man credited with starting it all, the demise of the movement would spell the end of life as he knew it and result in a profound personal loss.
Last December, hoping to better understand the autodefensa uprising, I traveled to Michoac?n to interview Mora. What emerged from my conversations with the embattled commander ? as well as other vigilantes, reporters, and human rights advocates across the state ? is?a complex picture of an international drug war that is nonetheless profoundly local;?a conflict simultaneously fueled by insatiable U.S. demand for drugs and multimillion-dollar counternarcotics programs that largely plays out in desperately neglected places, with regular people caught in the middle.
[Read Part 1?of the Hot Land.]
ALTHOUGH IT ULTIMATELY served to quiet an embarrassing news story, the response from Mexican authorities to the deteriorating situation in the Hot Land was, in the beginning, disjointed and confused. In the early days of the uprising, residents in the town of La Ruana, where the movement began, reported that local military units taught the autodefensas how to man barricades and use their weapons. Less than two months later, nearly 50 autodefensa members in the town were arrested for illegal weapons possession and suspected links to the powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel, a well-armed criminal group that had long sought control of Michoac?n. That same month, Mora?s men engaged in a fierce gun battle with the cartel in which Mora claimed the military?s intervention prevented a ?massacre.?
In May 2013, Pe?a Nieto directed thousands of federal forces to Michoac?n in a bid restore order. It was the first major military move of his presidency and eerily reminiscent of Calder?n?s initial salvo in his war on organized crime. Like Calder?n before him, Pe?a Nieto?s efforts to tame the Hot Land by military means met with lackluster results. By the fall of 2013, the autodefensas were marching on Apatzing?n, the Templarios? seat of power in the Hot Land. Fearing the worst, the federal government accompanied the vigilantes into the city and stationed snipers on the roof of the municipal palace. Days later, suspected Templario forces responded to the autodefensas? growing power by detonating bombs in nearly a dozen municipalities across the state.
By the end of the year, the autodefensas had evolved. Rather than local forces providing security in areas where they had communal or familial ties, residents described vigilantes increasingly made up of well-armed outsiders. In early 2014, the federal government deployed a new approach to quell the uprising. The president dispatched a trusted political operative to Michoac?n named Alfredo Castillo Cervantes to extinguish the movement threatening to derail his neat narrative of a Mexico on the mend.
Granted sweeping powers in matters of public security, the 38-year-old Castillo faced a thorny problem. Local officials in the state had long ago lost any credibility in the eyes of the public and could hardly be counted on for cooperation or support. The autodefensas, meanwhile, seemed to be far more effective than the federal government in driving out the Templarios; forcibly disarming them could invite a deadly showdown, with the people of Michoac?n siding with the militias.
Castillo entered into a series of backroom conversations with the autodefensa leaders and ultimately brokered a deal. The vigilantes could go legit and become fuerzas rurales ? rural defense corps ? an all but forgotten type of government-backed militia set up in the 19th century to chase desperados in the countryside following the Mexican Revolution. They would have to register their names and weapons, and in exchange, the government would provide legal arms, uniforms, and modest payment on a temporary basis. On January 29, Castillo announced that a number of autodefensa leaders had signed on to the plan. By that time, however, it had become clear that many of the groups had allowed former cartel leaders into their ranks, and the admission process for the new force was, at best, incredibly lax. Background checks were virtually nonexistent.
The cartel members-turned-autodefensas were known as arrepentidos ? the repentant ones. Mora, who saw the former criminals as irredeemable, insists that he rejected such integration. He appears to have been in the minority. The shadier elements of the autodefensas offered certain advantages to the state, including intelligence capabilities and familiarity with local criminal structures. With the establishment of the fuerzas rurales, Castillo offered state legitimacy to a host of unsavory arrepentido characters. A specialized government-backed task force for hunting Templarios known as G250, for example, was led by Nicol?s Sierra Santana, alias El Gordo, the head of a meth-trafficking cartel from Apatzing?n called?Los Viagras.
?That is not a secret,? said Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence analyst under Calder?n who now runs the national security news website El Daily Post in Mexico City. ?There is a lot of evidence the government knew that Los Viagras were criminals.? Hope added, ?Certainly, [Castillo] brought in some order where there was none. But this is the thing: He tried to fix Michoac?n by means of ad hoc agreements with autodefensas, this carrot-and-stick policy vis-?-vis the autodefensa leaders.?
?Where Castillo failed was in creating an institutional framework to pacify the state,? Hope said. ?He thought he could do it by means of backroom politics.?
The creation of the?fuerzas rurales was followed by a period of intensive joint operations involving the newly authorized militias and the state in which hundreds of suspected Templarios were reportedly killed or captured. Just two months later, the government announced a major score: El Chayo, the Templarios? legendary leader, had been killed. This time it was for real. The authorities claimed the diligent work of elite Marines located the drug lord. Others said autodefensa intelligence led to his whereabouts and that in the end, El Chayo?s bodyguards turned on him in exchange for protection. Whatever the truth may be, the triumph was short-lived; news of El Chayo?s demise was soon eclipsed by more pressing developments in Mora?s corner of the Hot Land.
ON MARCH 9, 2014, authorities discovered a pair of charred corpses in the bed of a pickup truck not far from Mora?s hometown of La Ruana. One of the dead men was Rafael S?nchez Moreno, a 52-year-old described in news reports as a prominent figure in the local lime business. S?nchez was involved in the creation of La Ruana?s self-defense group but had a falling out with Mora. Estranged from the La Ruana clique, S?nchez linked up with the militia in next-door Buenavista. That group was led by Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, known as El Americano because of his dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship.
The Washington Post described Torres as an ?El Paso car salesman? in his 30s who had been kidnapped during a 2012 vacation to Michoac?n and held captive until his family paid the unusually high ransom of $150,000. The ordeal reportedly inspired him to take up arms with the autodefensas in 2013. Upon joining the movement, Torres became a leading figure in a group known as H3, one of the shock troop forces Castillo relied on to clear towns.
A 2014 report published by Excelsior, one of Mexico City?s oldest newspapers, citing leaked ?national security documents? described H3 as part of the ?fourth generation of criminals? seeking control of Michoac?n, led by an array of longtime gangsters and autodefensa members. Torres, identified in the report as the leader of Buenavista?s autodefensas, was described as ?highly dangerous? and ?armed to the teeth.? (Efforts to interview El Americano through contacts in Michoac?n were unsuccessful.)
S?nchez, the rancher found incinerated in the pickup, had been a major supporter of El Americano?s efforts. In the weeks leading up to his murder, he and Mora had been locked in an increasingly acrimonious land dispute, with S?nchez accusing Mora of refusing to return several hundred acres of property he had seized. When S?nchez turned up dead, Torres immediately suspected Mora, who in turn accused Torres of maintaining criminal ties. Hundreds of H3 members flooded La Ruana, and the federal government was forced to extract Mora by helicopter. ?I fought for my town and for my town I will die,? Mora told the press before being airlifted out of town under the cover of darkness. The following day, Mora was placed under arrest for the S?nchez murder. When he was released two months later due to lack of evidence, Mora said at a press conference that his incarceration ?probably saved my life, as there was no security where I was.?
Mora?s release came at a crucial time for the autodefensas. Under Castillo, a number of the movement?s leaders had agreed to disarm and join the fuerzas rurales. A week after he was released, Mora and his men agreed to the plan. In joining with the government-backed militias, Mora broke with Jos? Manuel Mireles Valverde, the famed doctor and autodefensa leader ??and Mora?s ally since the movement began. While Mora was behind bars, Mireles had faced increasing pressure from the state to lay down his arms. The Doctor resisted, treating the government?s offer with skepticism, arguing that the autodefensas provided crucial security for the people of Michoac?n, and pointing out that it made little sense for his men to lay down their arms when the Hot Land?s criminal elements had not been forced to do the same. When asked why he signed on to the government deal, Mora said he simply needed the weapons. ?I have a lot of enemies,? he explained. He added that he only once wore the uniform the government provided, on the day it was given to him.
In a detailed report published by InSight Crime, a close tracker of Latin American security issues, and the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Mexican?government?s quasi-formalization deal with the autodefensas was described as a classic PRI ?bait and switch? strategy. Through Castillo, the president?s hand-picked problem solver, the Pe?a Nieto government managed to address the politically unwelcome optics of unaccountable irregular forces running around Michoac?n with guns by folding them into a?wing of the state, then used those forces to address a longstanding problem ? the Templarios? presence in Michoac?n. Those who resisted the deal were dispensed with. Mireles appeared to be the prime example. On June 27, 2014, he was arrested in a joint operation carried out by the state attorney general?s office, federal police, and the military, along with more than 80 of his supporters. The Doctor was charged with illegal weapons possession. He remains in prison.
If Mora believed that siding with the government would ensure security for him or his family, he was gravely mistaken. His enemy, El Americano, had signed on to the deal as well. Mora claims that he raised concerns about Torres?s alleged criminal links with Castillo. Rather than doing anything about it, Mora said Castillo aligned himself with Torres and H3. ?Castillo never wanted to detain them,? Mora said. As 2014 wore on, the animosity between Mora and El Americano only grew worse. By winter, it reached the breaking point.
MOST DAYS, THE streets of La Ruana have a steady rhythm. Men and women on motorbikes weave their way around stray dogs. Residents sit in lawn chairs outside the town?s colorful shops and sloping shacks, watching as the traffic passes. By the end of 2014, the roads had become increasingly crowded with convoys carrying loads of armed men. Many of the vehicles were adorned with large decals that read ?H3? ? El Americano?s crew. According to Mora, H3 members would pass through town drunk and high, brandishing their high-powered weapons and harassing his men. In mid-December, he said, they began issuing direct threats. ?Get ready,? they?d say. ?Because you are going to die.?
On December 16, 2014, the tensions finally boiled over. Mora and his men were manning a barricade at a crossroads on the edge of town. They had been monitoring H3?s radio frequency when they overheard a call to arms: Bring all of your weapons right now. We?re going to kill this son of a bitch. According to Mora, El Americano?s convoy was made up of 200 to 300 gunmen carrying grenade launchers and .50-caliber rifles. Once at the barricade, the members of H3 dismounted their trucks. Rocks were thrown. Mora said a fight broke out between two men from each side.
Shaky video clips of what unfolded eventually made it to YouTube. Young men can be seen in the beds of the trucks on their way to the confrontation, their rifles visible against the sky, wind whipping past them as residents on the sidewalk look on. The men curse and whoop with excitement. The shooting begins with three rounds fired in quick succession. Seconds later, the response comes, a rising cacophony of gunfire that reverberates like a heavy hailstorm battering a tin roof. Men huddle near the wheel wells of trucks clustered in a two-lane road outside a weathered factory, seeking shelter from the flying lead. Some lie prone on the pavement. Others scream.
Mora estimated that the gunfire lasted nearly two hours. When it finally subsided, he pulled out his cellphone and dialed his son Manuel?s number ? Mora?s right-hand man, Manuel had been across the street when the shooting began. The line rang and rang without answer. ?He always answers on the first call,? Mora said. He tried again ? still nothing. Mora turned to his comrades, one of whom?assured him that he had just spoken to Manuel by radio. Mora called again; still no answer. Now certain Manuel was dead, Mora broke down. ?I want to see him,? he told his men.
The gunfight killed 11 people: five from Mora?s side, six from H3. At Manuel?s funeral the following week, Mora?s men fired their rifles into the air while soldiers and federal police kept guard in the street. Manuel?s widow stood over her husband?s casket in a black T-shirt, her hair pulled back in a bun, eyes closed in the scorching afternoon sun. Mora cried, describing El Americano as ?the person I hate most in the world.?
Mora, El Americano, and a number of their fighters were arrested for the shootout but released a few months later due to lack of evidence. To date, no one has been held legally responsible for the lives lost that day. The investigation appears to have stalled.
A framed portrait of Manuel wearing a baseball cap sits on a shelf in Mora?s living room. When we spoke in December, Mora recounted a conversation he and his son?once had in that room. Some of their men had just been jailed and Manuel, himself a married father of three young girls, was imploring his father to put down his arms. ?Get out of this,? Manuel said. ?They?re going to kill you.? Manuel took off his rosary and placed it around his father?s neck. ?Forgive me,? Mora told his son. ?I?m not going to stop, no matter what happens.? Both crying, the two embraced. From then on, Mora said, Manuel rarely left his side.
?This was two years before the 16th of December,? Mora said. ?Disgracefully, it wasn?t me that died.? He repeated the word again: ?Disgracefully.?
When he finished the story, Mora disappeared into another room and returned carrying the black bulletproof vest Manuel was wearing when he died. ?He was hit in the side,? Mora explained, as he turned the vest over, pointing to the holes in the fabric and the dents in the body armor. ?This is the one I use now,? he said. ?I have another vest here, but I use this one.? Mora?s eyes began to water; his voice got caught in his throat. ?I take it wherever I go,? he said. For the rest of the conversation, Mora sat clutching the bullet-pocked piece of body armor, holding it close to his chest with both hands.
THE TRUTH CAN be slippery in the Hot Land, often contingent on unpacking generations of local disputes, hidden agendas, and self-serving narratives. In conversations with veteran reporters in Mexico, including local and international correspondents, Mora?s credibility was generally portrayed as far from perfect, but perhaps less compromised than others. The strongest?confirmation of his version of events emerged in the form of a sweeping report published in November by Mexico?s National Commission on Human Rights, known by its Spanish acronym, CNDH.
The report, built on almost 3,000 testimonies, including those of 316 autodefensa members and 639 state or municipal officials, offered a jarring history of the autodefensa movement and Mora?s role in it (the investigators interviewed 94 of Mora?s men). The investigators identified more than 3,000 direct and indirect victims of crimes in the years leading up to and including the autodefensa uprising, the result of the Hot Land and surrounding areas becoming ?ungovernable territories where the law was only partially present, where society?s security was not guaranteed, where there was no vigilance on highways, where commercialization was scarce, educational institutions were deficient, and violence was generalized.?
Consistent with Mora?s claims, the CNDH investigators found that in the early days of the autodefensas, the majority of those participating in the movement were victims of Templario crimes who armed themselves with aging, low-caliber weapons to defend the communities they lived in. The report detailed how many of the autodefensa groups steadily evolved into territory-grabbing paramilitaries later backed by the state, often despite widespread allegations of criminal links. El Americano?s H3 crew was offered up as an example of the phenomenon.
According to the CNDH, residents in Mora?s community were more willing to speak to investigators than those in El Americano?s area, who were ?reluctant to cooperate,? in some cases harboring ?fear or distrust.? Following the murder of S?nchez, the lime rancher found burned in the pickup, the CNDH, which had representatives in La Ruana at the time, ?witnessed firsthand the tension and intimidation on the part of the group H3.? The investigators interviewed numerous residents who said that after Mora?s first incarceration, members of H3, including unknown outsiders and known members of the Templarios under El Americano?s leadership, took control of his area, manned checkpoints while drunk, and undertook a campaign of robberies, extortions, raids, and the burning of homes.
Back in 2011, when Mora was first beginning to consider taking up arms, Jos? Maria Cazares assumed the unenviable post of human rights director for the CNDH?s Michoac?n office, which?had partnered in publishing a book of children?s drawings depicting violence in the state that year. Maria remembers the book well. He described it in an interview in his office in Morelia, the state capital. It was his last day on the job, and Maria looked tired. Seated at a?large wooden table, he said the children?s drawings reflected institutional failures ? poverty, unemployment, and lack of education ? two decades in the making. These conditions, in combination with an official disregard for safeguarding human rights, are what have allowed organized crime to fester, in turn giving rise to the autodefensa movement, he argued ? and there?s every indication they will persist into the future.
?That?s what concerns us,? Maria said in a soft voice ??that the sons and daughters of the?students who illustrated the 2011 book might one day draw the same images of Michoac?n. ?Unfortunately, we have not been able to land on public policies that defend human rights,? Maria explained. ?That?s the problem we?re faced with: the same scenario for the next 20 years.?
In the decade since the governments of Mexico and the U.S. launched their joint war on drug trafficking, scores of high-level traffickers have been killed or captured by authorities. Along the way, a staggering number of lives have been shattered. At times, the rate of killing in Mexico has outpaced Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Researchers have documented drops in the life expectancy of Mexican men as a result of the violence. On top of the deaths, the epidemic of disappearances in Mexico stemming from organized crime and criminalized security forces has been described as the worst in recent Latin American history. All the while, the more than $1.5 billion Washington has directed to Mexican counternarcotics and the estimated $79 billion put up by the Mexican government for safety and public security have?made little meaningful impact on the amount of drugs flowing north. Mexican cartels, according to the DEA?s most recent annual assessment, continue to represent the most significant criminal threat to the U.S. ? though, the DEA points out, the drugs primarily responsible for killing Americans don?t come from Mexico at all; they?re produced legally and locally in the form of prescription opioids.
Recent years have seen historic shifts in drug policy in the United States, including the legalization of marijuana in multiple states, an embrace of the notion that drug addiction is a public health problem, and a broadening of the discourse on drug prohibition itself. In April, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on ?the world drug problem.? It was the first of its kind in nearly two decades. Unlike the last session, in 1998, which focused on building a ?drug-free world,? this year?s session was celebrated as a symbol of a rising tide favoring a common sense, more empathetic approach to drugs and drug law reforms. The U.N. session followed years of demands from Latin American leaders for a break from the status quo. Together, the progress has led some to suggest optimistically that the war on drugs is, at long last, coming to an end.
On the ground in the Hot Land, however, the immense scope of the drug war ? a phrase you rarely hear in towns like La Ruana ? and the ongoing debate over the United States? prohibitionist regime, can feel distant and far-removed. After all, drug trafficking has existed in Michoac?n for decades. For much of that time, the violence was largely confined to those involved in the drug trade. It was only after the PRI?s fall from power in 2000 and Calder?n?s declaration of war in 2006 ??and the indispensable U.S. support that followed ??that public security became the dominating worry of those living in the region. Even then, the trafficking of drugs was an afterthought compared to the mafia-style exploitation of local communities, human rights abuses committed by government security forces, and the corrosion of public offices. In other words, the drugs are one part of a broader problem: the collision of a massively lucrative black market with anemic public institutions.
While the Templarios were largely destroyed by the autodefensa movement, especially after the citizens? groups joined with the state, myriad criminal groups have stepped in to take their place. Depending on the area in question, the Hot Land?s fuerzas rurales today appear either as under-resourced, under-trained quasi-police or narco warlords with uniforms.
Nayeli Noriega Espinoza, a TV reporter who covers crime in Apatzing?n, said that at least three, possibly four narco groups are currently vying to fill the criminal vacuum opened up by the fall of the Templarios and the breakdown of the autodefensas. Before, she explained, there was at least a sense of order to the madness ? people generally knew who was behind the local violence. Now, she said, ?We don?t know who?s killing.?
?There are no autodefensas,? Noriega said. ?Nobody is going to help us.?
SINCE MORA LAUNCHED?his anti-crime rebellion, his?wife and teenage daughter have relocated to the U.S. The family, he said, is awaiting visa approvals for Manuel?s widow and Mora?s grandchildren. He has no plans to abandon his life in La Ruana, though. ?I?m not afraid of them killing me,? he insisted, adding, ?I have more reasons than ever not to be silent.? Mora said he has friends who tell him his struggle is futile. ?I tell them the only way they will silence me is to kill me.?
Mora said he would ?gladly? share what he has learned about the connections between organized crime and corrupt Mexican government officials ? ?because I want to end this mess with these sons of bitches? ? but only in the presence of U.S. authorities. ?I would only give the names to people with the DEA or the FBI,? he said. Naming names to a journalist would invite incredible risk with little likelihood for payoff, he said. ?It?s one thing to speak generally and it?s another to give a name.? The individuals he has in mind are powerful, Mora explained, with access to serious guns and money. ?They?ve bought a lot of people in Mexico,? he said. ?I?ve already lost a son,? Mora added. ?I?m not going to endanger others.?
When asked whether it had been worth it ? the death of Manuel, the separation from his wife and children ? Mora wrestled with his answer. ?I would answer differently when we started this and I believed this was a fight between us and the Templarios,? he admitted. Back then, it seemed like a fight that could be won. ?Now it?s more difficult,? he said. ?We aren?t fighting against the Templarios anymore, or El Americano and his people. We?re fighting against the corrupt government, and that?s very difficult.?
?What people in the U.S. should know is that this is happening because of corruption within the government,? Mora emphasized. ?I won?t generalize. There are some good people in government. But they are few.?
Late one afternoon, on our last day together, Mora offered a tour of his lime ranch. We climbed into his tank-like SUV, reinforced steel boxes encasing the headrests of the driver and front passenger seats, and set off for the property with a truckload of his men following behind.
Branches brushed against the vehicle?s bulletproof windows as it crawled over rolling hills. A ranchera song played on the radio. Mora complained about his need to have an armed contingent watching his back wherever he goes. ?I have no privacy,? he said. It seemed to be a reminder of the ways in which his old life had disappeared. The ranch was another. These days, Mora explained, heading out to the property makes him nervous. Any hit man looking to make some cash could easily take advantage of the ranch?s wide-open spaces and put a bullet in him. Mora said he has an unshakeable sense he might meet his end there; dying on the land he started a movement to defend.
Mora pulled up to his family?s farmhouse, a single-story structure with white paint chipping off brick walls. He parked and walked over to a corral where a dark brown horse, a colt named Soldado, was stamping its hooves, waiting to be fed. Before the uprising began, Mora explained, the plan was to renovate the farmhouse and live there with his son and grandchildren. Now, it was out of the question. Not only is Manuel dead, the area is woefully exposed. Gesturing to a hill in the distance, the perfect place for an assassin to open fire on the property, Mora said the farmhouse is the place he fears most. He avoids it as best he can.
Night fell and Mora?s men prepared goat tacos for dinner. Mora told stories and cracked jokes. An anthem composed in honor of the autodefensas was played from the stereo of a pickup truck. The men gathered around to listen, their silhouettes illuminated in the vehicle?s headlights.
The next morning marked the one-year anniversary of the gun battle that took Manuel?s life. A Catholic mass was planned for 5 p.m. at the scene of the shootout. As the hour approached, nearly a dozen of Mora?s fighters gathered outside his home, relaxing in the shade on a mixed collection of lawn chairs. One snored loudly, his ball cap pulled low over his eyes and his rifle laid across his lap. Another stretched a balaclava over his face, set a flat black helmet on his head, and proceeded to snap selfies on his cellphone. Caught in the act, he flashed a thumbs-up.
Though the mood was lighthearted, there was uncertainty in the air ? after all, El Americano lost his own share of men a year ago. There was no telling how his H3 crew might respond to the public ceremony. Amid their laughter and teasing, Mora?s men checked and re-checked the magazines on their guns. Mora arrived, his leather sandals replaced by dress shoes and his bulletproof vest nowhere in sight. His men loaded into two fuerza rural pickup trucks and an armored SUV. Mora led the convoy without a bodyguard, driving his granddaughters and Manuel?s widow. The little girls wore matching navy blue dresses with white trim.
Mora parked his vehicle at the scene of the shootout. On one side of the road was a small collection of bouquets, crosses, and signs bearing the names and birthdates of some of the men who died there. On the other side was a white concrete altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary; a wreath of pink flowers was draped over the virgin?s shoulders. Mora and his men assembled rows of white plastic chairs in front of the altar. People began to arrive, slowly at first, filling the chairs one by one. The sun was fierce and women shaded themselves under umbrellas. Mora took a seat in the middle of the arrangement. His daughter-in-law sat in the front row. The priest?called the crowd to prayer.
Traffic continued to pass by on the two-lane road. Mora?s men lined up on either side of the street, weapons in hand. They watched nervously as two flashy Jeeps, identified as vehicles belonging to H3, cruised by repeatedly. The drivers, Mora?s men believed, were intentionally antagonizing the mourners. Thankfully, the vehicles didn?t stop. The mass let out as the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky over the Hot Land turned a fiery orange. Mora rose from his seat and returned his hat to his head. A small line of people formed to shake his hand and offer hugs. Mora obliged each one and then returned to his men.
Read Part 1:?How a Lime Grower?Led an Uprising Against One of Mexico?s Bloodiest Drug Cartels
Alejandro Guerrero Lara contributed to this story.
Source: The Intercept