Al Jazeera follows the heroin corridor from colourful poppy fields to a town ravaged by addiction and overdoses.
If any state in Mexico is emblematic of the country’s struggle with organised crime, drugs and corrupt government, it’s Michoacan. As such it’s been a regular stop for international journalists in Mexico.
At one time or another we’ve almost all passed through; whether to follow the atrocities of the Knights Templar cartel and it’s predecessor La Familia, the uprising of citizen vigilantes or to document the influxes of federal troops trying to dampen down the frequent outbreaks of violence.
But despite the constant media attention, at times it’s felt – at least for this reporter – that we are only hearing the half of what was really going on in the state. People may talk, but when your neighbour or work mate could be a cartel informer, sharing everything you know – especially with a journalist – is for many simply not an option.
When we returned to Michoacan this week things seemed different.
Mexico’s most wanted man, “La Tuta”, had just been captured. Most other leaders of his Knights Templar cartel had also been arrested or killed, and an organisation which once held an iron grip on the state appeared to be an irrevocably weakened force.
Bullet holes and bloody hand prints
Suddenly people were talking. Often not on camera – they’re still scared stiff. But in an anecdote once the tape stopped rolling, a tale told away from the ears of co-workers or neighbours. They seemed to be relishing the chance to pour out terrifying or tragic experiences after years of silence.
Over a meal of pork ribs with hot, red chili sauce in a yard on the outskirts of the town of Apatzingan, local women described to our producer Amparo Rodriguez convoys of Knights Templar trucks arriving in their town covered with bullet holes and once even with bloody hand prints on the side of one of the vehicles.
When the trucks came for someone in their street, they would turn off all the lights in their houses, lock their doors and hide their children. You could never be sure who the cartel was after.
On one occasion, the women said, a neighbour was kidnapped and found the day later wrapped in a blanket, dead. On another, a man fought back.
The kidnappers still managed to bundle him into the van, which then went down the road to pick up another victim, but as the second man was taken, the first managed to escape, jumping out and running away. He wasn’t seen in Apatzingan for years and, according to the women, only recently returned after hearing his kidnappers had finally been put in jail.
One of the women told us that in her neighbourhood she frequently sees the men who kidnapped her relatives. There is nothing she can do.
The power of the cartel might be broken, but in a country where authorities often have links to organised crime, she still feels that the federal forces can’t or won’t protect her if she speaks out.
‘Armed to the teeth like Rambo’
Outside of Apatzingan, a farmer described to us an incredible daily route to work: “Every day in just a few kilometres I passed through three check points. First the one where the Knights Templar cartel men searched cars, then the army and after that, the vigilante citizens groups. The vigilantes and the cartel checkpoint were the worst; armed to the teeth like Rambo and high on marijuana. It was pretty frightening.”
The Knights Templar demanded protection money from businesses, large and small, throughout the state – justifying the extortion as a tax paid to them for keeping the peace.
When citizen vigilante groups began to rise up and challenge them in 2013, they changed their tune, said a local businessman: “They sent a letter round politely informing businessmen that their ‘voluntary contributions’ were no longer required and invited everyone to a celebratory meal with them.”
He said that some went, and it wasn’t their first time. Knights Templar leaders apparently regularly held banquets for local businessmen in their strongholds in the Michoacán hills.
It’s clear that even with the Knights Templar significantly weakened, the state still has serious problems. The large numbers of federal police and army sent in haven’t been able to bring down one of the highest homicide rates in the country.
Locals in Apatzingan told us that criminals once employed by the Knights Templar are now killing and robbing indiscriminately – without even the cartel’s command structure to control them.
Others also fear that it is only a matter of time before other cartels, already present in Michoacan, fully step into the void left by the Knights Templar to begin a new reign of terror in the state.
But for now, at least, the silence and the tension appear reduced. And a terrorised populace are able to finally gain some relief by sharing what they have suffered through years of violence, extortion and oppression.