Sunday, January 19, 2014

contraction, collapse, and joblessness definitely turn weak groups violent

WaPo |  Jorge Rios, 11 rifle rounds and a silver cross decorating his black flak jacket, lost his job as a dishwasher in Tucson for driving without a license.

Santos Ramos Vargas, at 43 the oldest of this gang, got deported from Menlo Park, Calif., when he was caught carrying a pistol. 

Adolfo Silva Ramos might be with his 2-year-old daughter in Orange County rather than wearing a camouflage cap and combat boots if he hadn’t been busted selling marijuana and crystal meth while in high school there.

The two dozen men standing guard on a rutted road that cuts through these lime groves and cornfields are just one small part of a citizen militia movement spreading over the lowlands of western Mexico. But as they told their stories, common threads emerged: Los Angeles gang members. Deported Texas construction workers. Dismissed Washington state apple pickers. 

Many were U.S. immigrants who came back, some voluntarily but most often not, to the desiccated job market in the state of Michoacan and found life under the Knights Templar drug cartel that controls the area almost unlivable. They took up arms because they were financially abused by the extortion rackets run by the Templars. Because they had family killed or wounded by their enemies. Because carrying a silver-plated handgun and collecting defeated narcos’ designer cellphones as war booty is more invigorating than packing cucumbers. Because they get to feel, for once, the sensation of being in charge. 

“Everybody’s with us, all the people,” said Edgar Orozco, a 27-year-old American citizen who left his job at a Sacramento body shop nine months ago to join the fight after the Knights Templar killed his uncle and cousin. “We’re not going to disarm. Never.” 

Up and down the ranks of this group challenging the authority of the Mexican state are men who have brought their formative experiences in the United States to play in this chaotic uprising.

The movement’s top leader, surgeon Jose Manuel Mireles, lived for several years in Sacramento and worked for the Red Cross. Since he was injured in a plane crash earlier this month, much of the movement’s military leadership has fallen to a 34-year-old El Paso car salesman named Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez, known as “El Americano” because he was born in the States. He joined the militia after he was kidnapped on a routine family vacation to Michoacan in October 2012. His relatives sold land and took up collections to pay his $150,000 ransom. 

After that, he began plotting with Mireles and others to take revenge on the Knights Templar, an uprising that began last February when residents from three towns — Tepalcatepec, Buena Vista, and La Ruana — marshaled whatever rifles and shotguns they could find and seized control. Since then, the militia has spread to more than 20 towns, nearly encircling the region’s largest city, Apatzingan, a stronghold of the drug gang. 

The Knights Templar retaliated by attacking electricity substations and burning pharmacies and convenience stores. The militia has achieved what thousands of Mexican soldiers and federal police stationed in Michoacan have failed to do: impede the operations of this powerful cartel on a large scale.