APATZINGAN, Mexico — In medieval times, a powerful Christian military order known as the Knights Templar fought during the Crusades. Today, meth-peddling gangsters have taken the Templar name, and in an ironic twist they are finding Roman Catholic clergy among their fiercest enemies.
In the embattled Mexican state of Michoacan, Catholic priests are openly backing armed vigilante groups that are waging war against the Knights Templar gang.
Some priests allow the vigilantes to ring church bells to summon citizens to meetings. Others use their pulpits to lambaste local and state officials for colluding with the Knights Templar.
The anger of the clergy is aimed with equal vehemence at gangsters and at government officials, who they say have not done enough to rein in crime and extortion. That vexation will get a vast airing at morning Mass this Sunday, when priests across the Apatzingan diocese will read a scathing pastoral letter from Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez that accuses federal police and soldiers of doing little to capture Knights Templar bosses.
“Their leaders are fully identified and yet no authority stops them,” the letter says.
In his letter, Patino evokes the Nazi era, saying Christian believers should not only console the victims but also halt the Nazi campaign to kill its enemies.
“We ask politicians, the government and the Interior Secretariat to give people of our region clear signals that in reality they want to halt the ‘killing machine,’” Patino writes.
Michoacan, a fertile agricultural state along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, has been the site of criminal turmoil since the middle of the last decade, when gangsters turned the state into a hub for production of methamphetamine, adding to their marijuana and cocaine smuggling business.
Since February 2013, a vigilante campaign by armed civilians has spread across nearly a third of Michoacan. The vigilantes call themselves self-defense groups or community police, and they have won broad citizen support from nearly everyone, from large farm owners down to tortilla vendors and doormen at public restrooms.
In barely 11 months, the vigilantes have occupied at least 15 townships. In each, they have disbanded municipal police and run off politicians believed linked to organized crime.
On Monday, the country’s interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, stepped in as the vigilante groups nearly encircled this city of 140,000, the center of the Knights Templar empire, for fear that an attempt to dislodge the gangsters would lead to a bloodbath.
Osorio Chong announced the deployment of more federal police and troops to Michoacan state to quell the violence. He exhorted the vigilante groups to disarm.
Since then, federal police have assumed security duties in 20 townships and rounded up 308 municipal police officers and moved them across the nation to the state of Tlaxcala for ostensible retraining.
But for many priests, that was not enough. They echo vigilante demands that authorities arrest three top cartel leaders. They also reject disarmament of the self-defense groups, saying it would lead gangsters to take vengeance.
“We are fed up,” said the Rev. Andres Larios Chavez, a parish priest in Coalcoman, a town in this region. “St. Thomas Aquinas talked about the just war, and one criteria is self-defense.”
Like other clergy, Larios said the self-defense groups, while acting outside the law, are bringing peace to towns where they operate, achieving results that state and federal law enforcement do not, sometimes through willful negligence.
“I’ve told the federal police, ‘If you don’t act correctly, people will take the stick to you,’” Larios said in a telephone interview.
For Vicar Gregorio Lopez Geronimo of Apatzingan, the sticks are literal. Seated in his parish office, a bulletproof vest resting on a nearby chair, the priest orders a nun to bring in several bundles. When opened, they reveal cudgels. He said he’s ordered 1,000 made for citizens to use against those opposing law and order.
If federal police don’t act to arrest top gangsters, he said, he will rouse his parishioners to take to the streets, maybe within a few days, to go after the police with the clubs, prepared to pummel and bind them with rope.
“When a horse doesn’t move, you dig in the spurs,” he said.
The vicar donned his bulletproof vest for a group of foreign reporters, saying he’d been using it “for months” when he celebrates Mass, a sign of security concerns.
The nascent clergy-led rebellion holds echoes of the past.
Following the Mexican Revolution a century ago, anti-clericalism grew and evolved into persecution of Catholics, leading believers to launch a counterrevolutionary movement. Thousands were killed in armed uprisings during the 1926-1929 Cristero War, many of them in Michoacan.
In more recent decades, gangsters in the state have cast their movements in moral and religious terms, seeking obedience from followers. When a faction of the crime group known as La Familia Michoacana splintered off two years ago, it took the name Knights Templar, reaching back in history nearly 900 years.
Despite the crime group’s efforts to cast itself as righteous, it has bought off entire city police forces and co-opted officials across Michoacan, Larios said.
“The government and the Templars are the same thing,” he said. “The campaigns of the state officials are financed by them.”
He criticized Osorio Chong for ordering disarmament of the vigilante groups as a first step, a command that began but was dropped within two days.
“The government did things backward. Instead of disarming the criminal organization, it went into towns that finally had some peace and tried to disarm the self-defense groups,” he said.
In Nueva Italia, a town that the vigilantes won after a fierce firefight with Templar gunmen last weekend, parish priest Patricio Madrigal said townspeople had celebrated what they considered as a liberation.
“It was like a relief for many,” Madrigal said, adding that extortion vanished.
“If the self-defense groups aren’t here, who will protect us?” asked Maria Paz Hernandez, a resident who spoke on the sidelines of a public meeting at the town square.
Larios said the hunger for peace in Michoacan is growing by the day, leaving the clock ticking on government pledges that its latest security plan will succeed.
“If the government wants to avoid a savage massacre here in Michoacan, it better change its strategy,” the priest said.
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