Ajuchitlan (Mexico): Hundreds of vigilantes gathered in the western Mexico state of Michoacan to celebrate the anniversary of a movement that chased a violent drug cartel out of many of its strongholds, and largely ended a reign of terror in which farmers, ranchers and businessmen were subjected to systematic extortion, kidnappings and killings.
The "self-defence" forces yesterday organised a Monday Mass to honour those who died in the fight to expel the Knights Templar drug cartel, and vowed not to permit such abuses again.
The Roman Catholic Mass was held at a chapel dedicated to Mexcio`s patron saint the Virgin of Guadalupe, erected in the Michoacan town of La Ruana on the site where the Knights Templar, a pseudo-religious gang with evangelical influences, had built a shrine to its founder.
After the Mass, armed self-defence leaders marched through La Ruana, where the movement began on Feb 24, 2013, accompanied by children bearing white balloons signifying peace.
Leader Hipolito Mora recalled how, just one year ago, with a handful of friends and some old shotguns, he called on townspeople gathered in the centre of La Ruana to take on the well-armed cartel. A lime grower, like many here, he was spurred to action after cartel-controlled packing houses refused to handle fruit from his orchards.
"I had been trying to do this for about three years, but I didn`t have much luck," Mora recalled. "Everybody was afraid." But the movement caught fire, and in the course of a year with money from wealthy ranchers and businessmen to buy assault rifles and body armour the vigilantes have kicked the Knights Templar out of a dozen key towns and cities.
With roadblocks and patrols, often carried out jointly with the army and police, they now control much of Michoacan`s agricultural plains.
At the height of the battle last year, food, jobs and gasoline were scarce as the cartel tried to starve out the inhabitants, or forbade them from going to work.
Now, the Rev Javier Cortes, a Catholic priest in Apatzingan, the city once considered the Knights Templar stronghold, says things have changed since vigilantes entered the cities in joint patrols with the army and police this month to chase out the cartel gunmen. In a community where gunmen once burned down any business that dared to open its doors, Cortes says "people are happy, there is work."
But the movement`s success may have drawn some former members of the Knights Templar and its predecessor cartel, La Familia Michoacana, into vigilantes` ranks.