LA RUANA, Mexico — The farm state of Michoacan is burning. A drug cartel that takes its name from an ancient monastic order has set fire to lumber yards, packing plants and passenger buses in a medieval-like reign of terror.
The Knights Templar cartel is extorting protection payments from cattlemen, lime growers and businesses such as butchers, prompting some communities to fight back, taking up arms in vigilante patrols.
Lime picker Alejandro Ayala chose to seek help from the law instead. After the cartel forced him out of work by shutting down fruit warehouses, he and several dozen co-workers, escorted by Federal Police, met on April 10 with then-state Interior Secretary Jesus Reyna, now the acting governor of the state in western Mexico.
The 41-year-old father of two only wanted to get back to work, said his wife, Martha Elena Murguia Morales.
But, as often, the cartel responded before the government did.
On the way back, his convoy was ambushed, twice. Ayala and nine others were killed.
"I called him after the first one, and he said, `They shot at us, but I'm OK,'" Murguia Morales said. "Then I called him again, and he didn't answer."
Help finally arrived Sunday when thousands of soldiers rolled in to restore order. The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto says troops will stay in Michoacan until every citizen lives in peace. But the offensive, headed by Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos, looks a lot like failed operations launched previously by former President Felipe Calderon, who started his first assault on organized crime in Michoacan shortly after taking office in late 2006.
Calderon was trying to stop drug cartels from morphing into mafias controlling all segments of society. But that's exactly what has happened, as they maintain country roads, control the local economy and mete out justice for common crimes.
In the Tierra Caliente, a remote agricultural region, fire has been a favored weapon of the cartel. On the highway between Coalcoman and La Ruana, the ruins of three sawmills torched by the cartel still smoldered this week.
The owners reportedly had failed to pay protection fees of 120 pesos (about $10) for every cubic meter of wood they sold, the equivalent of about 10 cents for every two-by-four board.
The Knights Templar also demands that avocado growers pay 2,000 pesos (about $160) per hectare of trees. Avocado warehouses were set afire this month by armed men.
The heart of a conflict where a mafia openly rules and the government is largely absent is nowhere more evident than in the lime groves that cover the hot, hilly plains, miles and miles of trees with the fruit yellowing and falling into uncollected heaps on the ground.
Mexico is the world's largest producer of limes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 2 million tons in 2012. Much of its exports go to the United States, and Michoacan contributes a large share of that: nearly 475,000 tons of the fruit last year, half from the Tierra Caliente.
It sometimes seems like everything in Mexico, from tacos to potato chips to beer, gets a squeeze of lime.
By late last year, the cartel wasn't just extorting money from lime growers and packers. It had started charging per-box payments from lime pickers, who make only $10 to $15 per day laboring under the scorching sun.
With officials doing nothing to help, self-defense groups started to spring up in February to fight back. Heavily armed men in masks and baseball caps began manning barricades along highways and patrolling the countryside, sometimes openly battling the cartel. Last month
Then the cartel shut the warehouses, forbidding brokers to buy limes and cutting off work for the pickers who had revolted.
Straw-hatted fruit broker Carlos Torres Chavez watched on Tuesday as thousands of fresh green limes poured down the chutes from his plant's giant hoppers into a 37-ton truck for shipment to a processing mill. It was his first day open in two months, thanks to the arrival of the army.
Torres Chavez sells to mills that make lime oil. He usually gets yellow, overripe, second-rate fruit.
But because of the growers' desperation to make money, they were selling him fresh green limes for a peso per kilogram (8 cents per pound), a third of what the fruit is normally worth.
"This is a waste. These are good limes, they can be eaten. They shouldn't be going to the mill," said Domingo Mora, 54, as he picked up one of the limes sifting through the hoppers.
Mora's 24-year-old son, Daniel Mora Torres, was arrested in March along with 50 other young men from the La Ruana self-defense force and was sent to a prison in northern Mexico.
Authorities accused them of carrying banned assault rifles, and said some had links to a rival cartel, Jalisco Nueva Generation, which they deny. The federal government sees both the self-defense forces and the cartel as dangerous enemies.
Mora says his son is just a lime picker who couldn't work to feed his family after the Knights Templar banned the lime sales.
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, the federal government recently declared a lime emergency because prices had doubled to about 70 cents a pound (18 pesos per kilogram). For a fruit so central to Mexican cuisine, it was a crisis.
The government announced last week it would tackle the shortage by importing limes from Brazil. The government attributed the local scarcity to crop pests and "seasonal fluctuations" in production.
Sergio Ramirez, president of a lime trade group called Sistema Producto Limon, insisted there is no shortage and blamed the high prices on greedy fruit dealers and government bungling. His explanation doesn't play in the Tierra Caliente.
"Isn't it ironic, Mexico is going to import limes from Brazil, because there isn't enough supply?" asked a rancher wearing a baseball cap and leaning back into his chair at the headquarters of the local self-defense group in Tepalcatepec. "Here, the limes are falling to the ground, because the lords of the Knights Templar won't let them be sold."
The rancher, who like most of the vigilantes won't give his name for fear of reprisal, knows the price of living under the rule of the gang. They used to demand 800 to 1,000 pesos (up to $80) in protection money for each head of cattle he owned, about equal to any profit he would make from selling them.
The Mexican army was met with cheers when it arrived in La Ruana on Monday night. Federal Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong promised that the offensive this time would have better coordination, cooperation and intelligence to be successful.
But federal forces up against a deeply rooted local mafia that, with at least a decade of state and local government tolerance, exerts almost governmental power.
The last time the federal government truly went after the cartel, then known as La Familia, was in 2010. Federal Police killed leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in a gunbattle and firefights followed for weeks in dozens of spots. La Familia's leadership fell apart, but one branch of the cartel evolved into the Knights Templar, which has consolidated control.
The cartel now operates relatively openly. A man resembling its leader, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez, recently appeared on YouTube, calling on the federal government to do its job and saying the vigilantes were men sent by rival cartels from outside of Michoacan.
He has regularly sent messages depicting the Knights Templar as home-grown Robin Hoods who take from the rich, give to the poor and defend the state against other gangs.
The cartel even built public, roadside chapels to its fallen leader, "St. Nazario," which some of the vigilantes destroyed.
And it can draw crowds of supporters, either by threat, persuasion or payment, in cities such as Apatzingan, where hundreds of people have rallied to condemn the self-defense squads.
Many of the vigilante squads disappeared this week with the arrival of the army, though they vow to take up arms again as soon as the soldiers leave. But the patrols continued in the town of Buenavista, where one self-defense guard, a square-jawed young lime picker in a straw hat, carried a 16-gauge shotgun at a checkpoint. He described the cartel this way:
"It's like a monster with a thousand arms, that wants to control everything, the way you live, the way you think," said the young patrolman. "You cut off one arm, it grows another."
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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