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PARÁCUARO, Mexico—Manuel squats behind a stack of sandbags on a dirt road leading to this farming town in Michoacán state, his finger resting on the trigger of a Kalashnikov, watching for drug cartel snipers in the fields of rocks and cacti. This battlefield in a seething, arid valley is a far cry from the quiet suburb of Portland, Ore., where Manuel, a bulky 32-year-old, spent most of his life, raising four children and laying drywall for $200 a day. But two years ago, he was arrested and deported, returning to the town of his birth, which he found racked by violence.
He now occupies the frontline of a bloody battle between armed vigilante militias and a bastion of the Knights Templar, a brutal drug cartel with a bizarre belief system, held up in the neighboring town of Apatzingán. The Knights adopted the name of medieval crusaders to appear brave and righteous even as they traffic crystal meth and terrorize local communities. Manuel is one of thousands of vigilantes who have taken up arms against them. Known as autodefensas—or self-defense squads—the vigilantes launched their offensive with a few dozen gunmen last year, but financed by wealthy ranchers and businessmen, the squads have mushroomed into a formidable force that reclaims Templar-occupied towns and villages every few days. As they advance, the militias kill Knights Templar thugs, smash up their bizarre narco symbols, and storm their luxury mansions.
But Manuel’s story—like that of the battle of Michoacán itself—is not black-and-white. A reformed gang member in Portland, Manuel cooked crystal meth for the Knights Templar after he returned to Mexico. When the vigilantes stormed the town in January, he switched sides to join the group fighting to “liberate” the region from the cartel. But many locals worry about what the vigilantes might do if they succeed.
Mexico’s vigilante movement is largely a response to cartels diversifying from smuggling drugs to a wider portfolio of crimes, including shakedowns, kidnapping, and sex trafficking. In Michoacán the Knights Templar have been particularly brutal, provoking this ferocious citizen response. But thousands of vigilantes have also taken up arms in the neighboring Guerrero state, and there is concern they could spread to other parts of Mexico ravaged by crime and violence.
Parácuaro has been the scene of several firefights in recent weeks, mostly consisting of vigilantes firing wildly into the bushes at enemy gunmen they can’t see. In early January they shot dead a Knights Templar fighter who confronted them with a bazooka during a street battle. The gangster was killed before he could unleash the rocket, his limp finger still poised on the trigger.
But daily life on the barricades is surprisingly comfortable. The vigilantes joke and sing, share bottles of beer, and cook carne apache—beef marinated in lime juice. Police don’t bother vigilantes like Manuel; he carries an AK-47 openly and he drives a brand-new pickup truck he “decommissioned” from a Knights Templar boss who fled town. “It’s mine now,” says Manuel, who stands a head taller than his dozen comrades in the trench.
The vigilantes have a clearly defined mission: ridding the community of the Knights Templar and stopping their extortion and kidnapping. Manuel argues they need to take up arms because the government didn’t do its job of protecting citizens, “We have to take care of ourselves because the people who were supposed to be taking care of us were treating us like shit.”
Police sent to Michoacán have tolerated the vigilante offensive, and the Mexican government has offered to legalize the militias, while leading a new campaign against the Knights Templar. “The federal police are being very supportive of us,” says Manuel, waving his hand in the direction of a police checkpoint on the other side of the town. “They are an ally. But I’m pretty sure they are going to turn on us later. They are not going to let us keep these guns.”
Wedged between the Pacific Ocean and southern Sierra Madre mountains, Michoacán has long been a state of emigrants, sending its sons and daughters to cities and towns ranging from San Diego to White Plains, N.Y. The vigilante barricades are populated with men like Manuel who lived in “El Norte.” Their stories reveal the complexities of Mexico’s latest conflict, calling into question the simple narrative of “good” vigilantes against “bad” Knights Templar.
As a youth in Portland, Manuel joined the Barrio 18 street gang and was involved in drive-by shootings. He survived and eventually became a father and construction worker. But in 2012 that life came to an abrupt end when he was arrested for hitting an ex-girlfriend—a crime he denies—and was deported to Mexico. Manuel spoke accented Spanish and felt like an outsider in the land of his birth.
Manuel returned to his hometown of Parácuaro to find it under the bloody rule of the Knights Templar, who shook down everyone from corn farmers to taxi drivers. He claims he had little choice but to work for them. “Almost everybody here worked for the Templarios,” he says. “You were either with them or they could kill you.” The local boss was particularly keen to recruit Manuel, as he had experience with guns from his gang days.
Manuel cooked meth in laboratories in the nearby countryside for about $1,000 a barrel. He also accompanied narcos to collect debts, which he admits sometimes got violent. However, when he asked whether he considers himself a member of the Knights Templar, he shakes his head and smiles incredulously. He said he has no time for the Knights Templar’s bizarre beliefs: The gangsters have a book of codes, dress up in medieval armor for ceremonies, and venerate their deceased narco founder as a saint. “It’s all bullshit,” he says.
When the self-defense squads stormed Parácuaro last month, Manuel joined them, like most men in the town. The hard-core of the Knights Templar were either killed or fled. “I flipped. I had no choice,” Manuel says. “Now I’m scared the Knights Templar are going to want to kill this whole fucking town for turning against them.”
The future for Manuel and many others in Michoacán is uncertain. The vigilantes want to storm Apatzingán and finish the Knights Templar for good. But such an assault could trigger a bigger bloodbath. And even if the Knights Templar are destroyed, there’s fear the self-defense squads may not give up their guns and could themselves shake down the communities they hold. “There are thugs with rifles everywhere we look,” says Heredio Gonzalez, who sells bread and cakes in the center of Apatzingán. “I don’t know if one set of gunmen would be better than another.”
As night falls in the trench, Manuel and his comrades unload blankets and get ready to sleep in shifts. Manuel says he hopes that one day he can escape back to the United States and his former life. “I’d love to get out of here and go home,” he says. “Why would anyone choose to live in a place like this?”