Born in Mexico but raised in barrios of Southern California, these rifle-slinging fighters are holding down the front line in Michoacan’s battle against a ruthless meth gang.
NUEVA ITALIA, Mexico — Moises Verduzco says he learned how to handle himself in a fight from his teen years running with a street gang near Los Angeles.
Now back home in western Mexico’s violent Michoacan state, Verduzco and other United States-bred youths are putting those lessons from the barrio to war against the Knights Templar criminal cartel.
Verduzco, 22, spent most of his life in the working-class city of Hawthorne, Calif., until the US deported him to Mexico a few years ago following a criminal conviction.
“This is way better,” he says, comparing his preferred vigilante post with California gangster life. “Here you are doing the right thing for your town. All a gang over there [in the States] is going to take you to is death or prison.”
For 11 months, armed civilians calling themselves “autodefensas,” or self-defense militias, have been fighting to thwart the deadly Knights Templar in Michoacan’s Pacific coastal lowlands.
The militias’ recent successes against the gang has renewed fears of civil war here, spurring President Enrique Peña Nieto to dispatch thousands of troops to keep the groups apart.
The criminal violence that’s claimed some 80,000 lives in Mexico, according to independent analysts, began in these very towns seven years ago. Michoacan plagues the government still — and it’s quickly become Peña Nieto’s most vexing security headache.
Known as “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Country, this region has long sold fruits, vegetables, and crystal meth to Mexican and US consumers. Experts say the Templars dominate large parts of the meth trade.
After years of kidnappings and endemic extortion by the Templars, “people just want to be able to work unmolested,” says Aaron Sanchez, an official in Nueva Italia, a market town that militiamen captured on Sunday following skirmishes with the gang.
“The government hasn’t been able to deal with the situation so we as a people have had to,” he says.
Militia leaders say they don’t have a good count of the US-raised youths among their hundreds of gunmen. But Verduzco and others from Southern California say their numbers are considerable.
One fighter claimed to be a US Army veteran who returned to Mexico specifically to join the militias. There were many like him, he said. But he walked away when pressed for details.
“We’re here to defend the people. They tell us whatever they need,” Adolfo Silva, 20, raised in Santa Ana, Calif., says of the Templars in English (seen in the video below). “I’m a guerrilla.”