TIME Newsmaker Interview

President of Honduras Expects Mass Deportations of Minors From U.S.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 17, 2014. Ross McDonnell for TIME

The problem of violence driving Central American migration has its roots in U.S. drug consumption, President Juan Orlando Hernández says in an exclusive interview with TIME

(TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras) — Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been warned by U.S. officials to expect a enormous wave of deportations from the United States, he told TIME in an interview at the presidential palace in the Honduran capital on July 17. “They have said they want to send them on a massive scale,” he said.

Before another planned visit to the United States beginning Thursday, Hernández said his country is preparing to receive the returnees but the United States needs to support him in building security in this Central American nation. He took power in January to confront what may be the biggest migration crisis in his country’s history, with tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children captured on the border in the United States.

Honduras has suffered with the world’s worst murder rate in any country outside a war zone, as street gangs known as maras have become increasingly linked to drug traffickers moving cocaine from the Andes region to the Unites States. Hernández said his government has worked hard to reduce this murder rate in his first months in office, but said violence is still a major problem driving the youth migration.

To combat the criminals, Hernández calls for a security plan with U.S. support, akin to Plan Colombia in which U.S. aid helped the South American nation battle drug traffickers and cocaine-funded guerrillas. The United States has a responsibility to help Honduras, Hernández says, because U.S. drug consumption is driving the violence.

The following exchange has been edited for brevity.

The wave of migration has generated a strong debate in the United States. How do explain this rapid rise in child migrants?

I believe there is a combination of factors. One is the lack of opportunities in Central America and we have to build opportunities here more quickly. Two is the issue of violence, because if you look, you will see that in the case of Honduras, the highest level of migration is in the places with the most conflict, particularly in the neighborhoods where the street gangs have become the armed wing of drug traffickers and kill each other for territorial control. . . . But the other factor, that we shouldn’t forget, is the lack of clarity of U.S. immigration policy. When the immigration debate goes on, disgracefully, the coyotes [the human smugglers] come and say, “Now is when you can bring your child from Central America.” . . . So my call to the United States is that it defines these rules with clarity.

The violence in Honduras is complex. What drives it more, drug cartels or street gangs?

What is happening in Honduras is that drug traffickers partnered with the street gangs so that the gangs did the violent work of extortion and kidnapping. What happened? When the huge packages of drugs arrived at the coast or landed in a plane, the drug traffickers said to Hondurans, “Move these drugs to Guatemala or Mexico, but I am going to pay you with drugs and you finance the operation.” So the street gangs carried out extortion and sold the drugs, contaminating society.

For this reason, I call for the principle of shared responsibility between those who produce [drugs] and those who consume them in the North. In the United States, many officials see the drug problem as basically one of health, as how much it costs to treat an addict and stop them getting involved. But for us it is life and death. That is the difference. . . .

I want to remind the North American people what happened before Mayor Giuliani in New York, how drugs, among other factors, combined to make a very difficult security situation. This happened in Los Angeles when the street gangs also moved drugs; it happened in Miami. But the fight against it was successful. [Americans] have suffered violence in their territory from drug trafficking. Well, now it is happening to us, but in much higher rates. Never in Central America, particularly in the northern triangle and in Honduras has there been so much loss of life as in this decade. Never. Never in history. And look, disgracefully, this is a not an issue that originates in Honduras.

If in the United States, there is a move to change the law to deport a minor without a court hearing would you oppose it?

I would like to ask congressmen and senators and those who make political decisions in the United States that they think first in the interest of the child, because the child as well being a human being, is more vulnerable than the adult. But also they [children] go with the very human, very natural desire to be with their parents. . . .

On the other side, if there is a child without a family member in the United States, and the law says they have to return, we are working with this. Like never before in Honduras, we are investing resources to warmly receive our countrymen, with psychologists, doctors, giving them different options that we have for job opportunities, or farming financing. We are also guiding them spiritually, because they are families that are destroyed inside. They sold everything before leaving, and they arrive frustrated. We have to reintegrate them. We are making this effort.

What has the U.S. government said to you about the issue of migration? Have they told you they are going to deport many more people?

Yes, they have said they want to send them on a massive scale. We told them that number one, we have to respect the principle of giving priority to the child. Two, in the case that a family has children that don’t have relatives in the United States, that they don’t deport them along with adults that have committed crimes there. We don’t want them to be mixed. They [U.S. officials] have understood that part, and we, knowing there are large quantities, more than usual, have had to prepare ourselves to receive our countrymen.

Are you optimistic this is the start of something better, or will it be a long, dark difficult time ahead?

It is a difficult situation. It is a humanitarian crisis that the world needs to see. How long will it last? Will it get more complicated? This depends on support from countries such as the United States and Mexico. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras we are working hard.

If they help us, because this is a problem they generate, I repeat, because of the connection between the drugs they consume in enormous quantities in the United States that are produced in the south and pass through Central America, generating violence, generating this migratory flow—if they help us I am sure we will be on the route to resolves this in a short time.

TIME central america

Honduran Children Deported From U.S. Back to World’s ‘Most Violent City’

A chartered flight of minors and mothers deported from the U.S. landed on Monday in San Pedro Sula, said to be the world's murder capital

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Twenty-one Honduran children and 17 mothers deported from the U.S. landed in San Pedro Sula on Monday — reportedly the most murderous city in the world — to be greeted with balloons and smiles from Honduras’ First Lady.

“These are people coming home with a broken heart and a broken dream,” Ana García de Hernández told a throng of reporters and cameramen pushing at a barricade as the deportees were given food. “We have to give them the best welcome we can.”

Children have been deported before from the U.S. to Central America, although usually seated more discreetly on commercial flights. But the plane that landed on Monday from New Mexico was the first flight entirely made up of women and children deportees to be sent to this impoverished Central American country, Honduran officials said. García said it would be one of dozens of such flights chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the coming weeks, delivering deportees not only to Honduras but also El Salvador, Guatemala and parts of the region.

Tens of thousands of Central American minors have made the hazardous journey to the U.S. by themselves, in the hope of forming an immigration foothold for their families. Because U.S. border facilities are so overwhelmed, authorities often release children into the care of relatives already in the country. The largest number comes from Honduras, a mountainous land of sprawling banana plantations that has become the deadliest country in the world outside a war zone. In 2012, it suffered 90 killings per 100,000 people. While poverty has long been a driver of emigration, many children cite the violence as the reason they flee.

However, with these chartered flights the new attitude from Washington is clear: children should no longer come because they will not be allowed to stay.

“These deportation flights send a message to people and families in Central America, but also they send a message that the governments should listen to,” says Héctor Espinal, the Honduras spokesman for the UNICEF, which is overseeing the reception of deportees. “The message is that governments should do what they need to do to stop the violent conditions that are making these children leave.”

Exactly how to stop the violence in Honduras is a subject of much debate. Many murders are carried out by two major gangs, each with thousands of members — the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Surviving military crackdowns and anti-gang laws, they have grown into transnational criminal organizations capable of shaking down businesses large and small. Adding to the bloodshed, drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia use Honduras as a staging point to move cocaine north to the profitable U.S. market.

Speaking to TIME, First Lady García said Honduras needs its own U.S.-funded anticrime program, akin to Plan Colombia or Mexico’s Merida Initiative, to fight the gangs and cartels.

“We have been having a frank conversation with U.S. Congressmen, and we accept that a cause of much of this emigration is the violence. The 30 most violent municipalities in Honduras are also the municipalities with most unaccompanied minors leaving, and these are places that have been hit by drug trafficking,” García said. “Drug trafficking starts in South America, unfortunately passes through our country and continues to the United States. We have spoken about the need for integral support to solve this problem. My husband, the President, has spoken about the need to implement in Honduras what they implemented in Colombia and in Mexico.”

Any improvement however, will take time — and in the meantime, many are desperate. Coming out of the deportation-processing center after arriving on another flight, 20-year-old Wilson Hernandez said he was concerned about going back to his home in the Pradera del Sur neighborhood of San Pedro Sula.

“It is a brutal place. There are gang members with rifles and grenades. I am scared to go out of my house a lot of the time,” says Hernandez, who was caught crossing into Texas.

In April and May, eight minors were murdered in Pradera del Sur. Police say they were killed by gang members, possibly because they refused to be recruited.

“This kind of violence makes kids want to run away. They just want to survive,” Hernandez says. “They can fly people home, but if this carries on they will still head north. Things have to change here.”

TIME Mexico

How Gravity Director Alfonso Cuarón Stirred up Mexico’s Oil Politics

Alfonso Cuaron Attends to Possibility Sessions
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron attends a press conference to talk with university students on April 30, 2014. Adan Gutierrez—STR/LatinContent/Getty Images

Alfonso Cuarón's call for a crackdown on corruption, environmental reforms and more transparency has shaken up Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's plans to give private companies a share of its oil wealth

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared to have outmaneuvered all opposition for his reforms to give private foreign companies a share of the nation’s oil wealth. Street protests in defense of oil nationalism attracted thousands instead of millions. Calls for an immediate referendum on energy laws were dismissed as unconstitutional. Key opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former presidential candidate, even suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack.

But he didn’t count on the power of Hollywood. At the eleventh hour, as lawmakers looked set to approve the new rules, the Oscar-winning Mexican director of Gravity stormed onto the scene, to call for a deeper debate on what will be the biggest change to Mexico’s energy politics since it nationalized the black gold in 1939.

In a newspaper ad on April 28, Alfonso Cuarón asked tough questions about uncomfortable issues such as taking on the oil-workers’ labor union (a traditional supporter of Peña Nieto’s party), stopping corruption in new energy contracts, and protecting the environment. Finally, on Monday, he published a new ad calling for three primetime TV debates on the energy laws.

“We should hold a plural and open debate about the reforms, a debate that the citizens deserve,” wrote Cuarón in the ad, also placed on the internet. “The quality of a democracy goes beyond the electoral process. And it goes beyond the discussions and votes of Congress. The quality of a democracy depends on a large part on its public debates.”

It is yet to be seen how much impact the first Mexican to win the Academy Award for best director will have on the final laws. But his words shook up the discussion of the energy reform in Mexico’s Congress and media. Senators for the former ruling National Action Party on Tuesday rallied in support of Cuarón’s proposal for TV debates. “It is a good idea to keep giving coverage of the issue of oil reform, because it is better if citizens know all the details,” Sen. Salvador Vega, head of the energy commission, told reporters. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party went even further, calling for Cuarón to personally come into the Senate to speak about the subject.

The momentum of Cuarón’s call could make it difficult for Peña Nieto to refuse the demand. When Cuarón won his Oscar in March, Peña Nieto tweeted on how the success was good for Mexico. When Cuarón released his first ad, Peña Nieto tweeted again, thanking him “for enriching the debate,” before his administration released a 13-page PDF document defending the reforms. However, prime time TV debates could add strain on Peña Nieto in rallying lawmakers to support the new oil laws, which they are expected to vote on in the following weeks. Constitutional changes to Mexico’s oil laws that would allow a greater role of foreign companies were already approved in December. But the new rules to be voted on will spell out the vital details of the historic energy reform.

The government document that responded to Cuarón reiterated many of the points that Peña Nieto has raised since he took office in 2012. It said that allowing more involvement of foreign companies could increase Mexico’s oil production, creating wealth that will boost the economy. It said the government will also support alternative green energy. And it said that new contracts and the union are open to public scrutiny.

The movie director’s stance has won both support and criticism in mainstream and social media in Mexico. Leftist newspaper La Jornada, long an opponent of oil reform, applauded Cuarón. However, Ana Paula Ordorica wrote in Excelsior newspaper that Cuarón was abusing his fame. “Cuaron should talk, ask and be active in everything to do with cinema and leave energy politics in the hands of those that know the issue and are available to discuss and debate it,” Ordorica wrote. The tag #Alfonsocuaron also went wild on Twitter. “I think the profession of good citizen has fallen on Alfonso Cuaron,” tweeted Christian Gutma. “He shows us that we have the right to demand, confront.”

Whatever happens to the oil reform itself, Cuarón’s position could set a new precedent in Mexican politics. Mexican actors and directors, many who won fame in the nation’s steamy telenovela soap operas, long stayed largely clear of government debate. Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before shooting into Hollywood’s A-list with Gravity, has pushed into new frontiers. But while finding his fame abroad, Cuarón says he has deep roots and loyalty to his homeland. “I am living outside [of Mexico] for circumstances of life, but I have my cultural roots in Mexico,” Cuarón told a news conference in Mexico City, following the first ad. “I think like a Mexican.”

TIME Mexico

Mexico’s Craziest Drug Lord ‘Died’ Twice and Used to Dress as God

Military personnel and federal policemen guard an area where the dead body of Mexican drug lord Nazario 'El Chayo' Moreno Gonzalez remains, in Apatzingan, Mexico, March 9, 2014.
Military personnel and federal policemen guard an area where the dead body of Mexican drug lord Nazario 'El Chayo' Moreno Gonzalez remains, in Apatzingan, Mexico, March 9, 2014. EPA

Mexican authorities confirmed killing the leader of the Knights Templar cartel, Nazario Moreno, a mysterious drug lord who was part mobster, part evangelical cultist. He also claimed to espouse Christian values and wrought Old Testament justice on rivals

When drug lord Nazario Moreno was a child sharing a shack with his 11 brothers and sisters, alcoholic father and violent mother, he took refuge reading the cult Mexican comic book Kalimán. In the stories, the superhero Kalimán defeats his enemies using martial arts and telepathy while reciting one-liners of wisdom. Later, when Moreno became a millionaire meth trafficker, he authored his own book of “wise” phrases, which are strikingly similar to those of Kalimán. His life story also became as surreal as that of a comic book; he commanded a bloodthirsty cartel that he called the Knights Templar, dressed up in white robes (as did Kalimán), and faked his own death at the hands of federal police.

But the tale of Moreno, alias “The Maddest One,” reached the final chapter last weekend, when Mexican soldiers really did appear to shoot him dead as he celebrated his 44th birthday. The take-down of Moreno was another victory for President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose government also oversaw the recent arrest of trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. “Today we are observing a Mexican state with better capabilities and strengths,” Pena Nieto said Monday following Moreno’s death. “Important criminals from different organizations have been arrested and been stopped.”

For thousands in Mexico’s western Michoacán state, the suffering under Moreno’s tyranny was no comic book adventure. Knights Templar gunmen kidnapped, extorted and raped, dumping severed heads in village squares and on disco dance floors. Confronted with this terror, Michoacán residents rose up in vigilante militias and drove the gangsters out of towns, pressuring the army to take action. Vigilantes and soldiers finally closed in on Moreno’s mountain hideouts last week, cornering him on a highland ranch. His death, confirmed with photos and fingerprints, was an embarrassment for former President Felipe Calderon, under whom federal police claimed to kill Moreno in 2010. On that occasion, police said Moreno’s gunmen escaped with his body.

As the vigilantes further ground away at the Knights Templar, bizarre details of Moreno’s cult-like leadership emerged. Moreno’s followers venerated the drug lord as a saint and kept statues of him in medieval armor decorated in gold and diamonds. Some had copies of his book of phrases, entitled Mis Pensamientos (“My Thoughts”) or of a memoir entitled Me Dicen el Más Loco; El Diario de Un Idealista (“They Call Me the Maddest One; Diary of an Idealist”), which TIME had access to.

In the autobiography, which was self-published and distributed exclusively inside the cartel, Moreno describes growing up so broke that refried beans were a luxury and he thought the rich drunk Coca-Cola instead of river water. The comic Kalimán was an inspiration to escape from this, he writes. “My brother and I dreamed of being great characters, helping the people and bringing justice to the poor.”

At the age of 16, Moreno describes leaving Michoacán to sneak into the United States, which he refers to as “gringo-landia.” He soon sold marijuana from San Jose to the Indian reservations of Humboldt County and guarded the safe-houses of more experienced traffickers. When African American and Chicano dealers threatened Moreno, he says he was quick to fight back with a knife or a gun, earning his “maddest one” nickname. This propensity to rumble eventually led him to being beaten repeatedly in the head, giving him permanent brain injuries, including hallucinations, making him even more loco.

Moreno also confesses to suffering alcohol problems like his father. He finally escaped his angry drunken ways, he says, when he discovered evangelical Christianity through Latino preachers in the United States and began to read and pray obsessively. But rather than leaving crime, he brought his religious beliefs into it. Returning to Michoacan, he built a meth-trafficking cartel that also claimed to espouse righteous Christian values and wrought Old Testament justice on rivals. They identified with the Knights Templar, a medieval crusader order of brave and holy warriors.

An agent for Mexico’s federal anti-organized crime division says the memoir is authentic and largely corresponds to facts police had already established about Moreno’s life. The agent, speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give public statements, says that Moreno probably believed his own propaganda, but also saw the quasi-religious elements as a way to discipline his troops. Quizzed about Moreno’s alleged death in 2010, the agent says that federal police really believed they had killed him in a firefight. Moreno then took advantage of their claims, pretending to be dead while encouraging his followers to venerate him.

As the vigilante militias have reclaimed towns from the Knights Templar, they have recruited many of Moreno’s old henchmen over to their side. These former templarios also offer insights into the drug lord’s rule. In the town of Antunez, a man named Hilario confessed that he was a gunman for three years for the Knights Templar before joining the vigilantes in January. He describes going on a week-long course in which they studied Moreno’s writings. At the end, Moreno came to speak to them clad in white robes. “He was dressed as God. His balls went too far up into his head,” scoffs Hilario, who served time in a U.S. prison for cooking meth. Hilario also describes guarding a meeting with Moreno and one of his lieutenants: “He would suddenly flip. One second he was talking about religion and the next he was ordering a hit on somebody.”

Other vigilantes suffered the brutality of Moreno firsthand. A lime farmer in Antunez named Elias described how Knights Templar thugs kidnapped him for failing to pay extortion quotas and held him for three days in the mountains. After he was beaten on the lower back with a wooden board, he said that he saw Moreno coming into the room. “Every time I remember his face I remember my pain and my anger,” says Elias, while carrying a Kalashnikov and scouring the hills for Templar gunmen.

Despite the cruelty of his cartel, Moreno insisted in his writing he was a social fighter. As well as claiming to be Christian, he hails Latin American revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. Moreno argues that drug trafficking is a result of Mexico’s unequal system that gives the poor no opportunities. “They say that each society has the government it deserves,” Moreno writes. “I would also say that each society and government have the criminals that they deserve.”

TIME Mexico

What The Arrest Of ‘El Chapo’ Means For Mexico

Cheers, tears and fears follow the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman

Even as Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman had a $5 million reward on his head, his name could be heard in dozens of so-called drug ballads, played from Guatemala to the U.S. border, and especially in his home state of Sinaloa. Over a polka-like beat and earthy accordion melody, the verses celebrate how the short man from a ramshackle village in the mountains escaped a high security prison and beat back the Mexican army and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to make his billions smuggling cocaine and marijuana to Americans. “Many ask how it is possible that a Mexican, has made fun of the gringos, who are meant to be so clever,” it says in one song, written by Los Nuevos Rebeldes. However, Guzman’s 13 year run of outwitting authorities crashed to an end Saturday. Mexican authorities announced they had nabbed Guzman at the Sinaloan seaside resort of Mazatlan, before parading the haggard-looking gangster in front of reporters in Mexico City.

The detention was celebrated by Mexican and U.S. officials as a mighty blow against the drug cartels, whose infighting and wars with the army and police have left more than 70,000 dead in Mexico since 2006. “This is the most significant arrest of a drug trafficker in decades,” Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the DEA, told TIME. “Chapo Guzman was definitely the biggest trafficker in Latin America, and in my opinion in the world.”

However, on the streets of many Mexican cities that have been wracked by violence, people wondered what repercussions the arrest might bring. “It is like time has stood still,” journalist and author Javier Valdez said by phone from Sinaloan state capital Culiacan. “There is a feeling of uncertainty, a worry of what could come next.” Valdez, who has chronicled the lives of Sinaloa’s drug world in several books, said that some in the state see Guzman as the hero celebrated in their songs. “A lot of people here have no faith in politicians or the system that gives them nothing. Chapo is seen as a success story.”

Guzman’s strongest base of support is in the mountainous Sinaloan municipality of Badiraguato where he was born. The area is part of the so-called Golden Triangle and has been producing opium for Americans since Washington first restricted it in 1914. In villages hanging on the edge of the Sierra Madre, many residents call drug traffickers “valientes,” or brave ones, while they often refer to soldiers with disdain as “guachos,” or servants. Residents claim they have seen Guzman appear in villages, handing out wads of bills to needy mothers and loyal toughs.

[Read: Mexico's New Mission]

But other Mexican communities have seen the trail of blood left by gunmen who fought in the name of Guzman. The druglord’s Sinaloa Cartel battled along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border for space to smuggle marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to a U.S. drug market estimated by the United Nations to be worth about $60 billion a year, half of which is believed to go to Mexican gangsters. Squads of assassins used assault rifles and grenade launchers to protect Guzman’s empire. At one scene in Nuevo Laredo in 2012, 14 bodies were hung from meat hooks, along with a note signed, “Attentively, Chapo. Remember I am your real daddy.”

With the arrest of Guzman, there is concern that junior lieutenants could fight to take over the Sinaloa cartel empire. The cartel’s second most powerful figure Ismael “Mayo” Zambada is a veteran trafficker in his sixties, who is believed to have distanced himself from the cartel wars of recent years. “Zambada is trying to avoid arrest himself, so it will be hard for him to exert control,” Vigil said. Another fear is of rivals pushing into Chapo’s territory. The Zetas, whose territorial bloodshed has reportedly left mass graves with hundreds of bodies, have long fought the Sinaloa Cartel. Another Sinaloan trafficker Hector Beltran Leyva has waged war with Guzman, leaving piles of severed heads and bullet ridden bodies in Sinaloa. “People are scared about more violence breaking out, of what reaction the cartels will have,” Valdez said.

But the Guzman arrest boosts President Enrique Peña Nieto, who can claim to have acted where his predecessors failed. Guzman escaped from a Mexican high security prison in 2001 under then President Vicente Fox. Guzman then evaded capture throughout the rest of the Fox presidency and stayed on the run during six years of President Felipe Calderon, even as the government waged a military offensive against traffickers, sending thousands of police and soldiers to Sinaloa state.

Still, the leftist opposition Democratic Revolution Party insisted that unless the government goes after money laundering and builds up the justice system, arrests of kingpins will not stop the violence. “We demand that there is…the dismantling of financial networks and the combating of impunity, the cancer that has fed criminals,” the PRD said in a statement following Chapo’s arrest. Others feel drug policy itself needs to be reformed to stop the war. Legislators in the leftist-dominated Mexico City assembly recently proposed to soften marijuana laws to reduce cartel power.

Guzman’s immediate future is uncertain. While he still has to serve out his sentence in Mexico, several U.S. courts are seeking his extradition on racketeering and trafficking charges. By extraditing him, Mexico could avoid the security problems of holding Guzman in a Mexican jail, Vigil said. Mexico’s prisons have suffered from notorious escapes in recent years, including some with more than 100 inmates and others supported by helicopters. But Guzman’s lawyers will likely fight hard for him to stay in Mexico. “If Guzman is extradited to the United States,” Vigil said, “he will never see daylight again.”

TIME Mexico

Mexican Vigilantes Beat Back Ruthless Knights Templar Cartel

Vigilantes ride on the back of a pick-up truck while driving in a convoy to Poturo, Michoacan, Dec. 29, 2013.
Vigilantes ride on the back of a pick-up truck while driving in a convoy to Poturo, Michoacan, Dec. 29, 2013. Jorge Dan Lopez—Reuters

When vigilante militiamen stormed this farming town in western Mexico this month, a killer for the Knights Templar drug cartel pushed out of a house with a bazooka. But with training from ex-soldiers, the militiamen rapidly shot the gangster dead before he could unleash the rocket and he fell onto the dirt street, his lifeless finger touching the edge of the trigger. The vigilantes now defend the rim of the town, bearing Kalashnikovs behind barricades of sandbags, watching for Knights Templar snipers. They soon hope to advance into the nearby town of Apatzingan, the bastion of the Knights Templar, to deliver the deathblow to their enemy.

Led by farmers, shopkeepers, doctors and taxi-drivers, vigilante militias have turned the tables on one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels, the Knights Templar, a gang that names itself after medieval crusaders to appear brave and righteous even as it traffics crystal meth. The offensive has changed the face of the country’s drug war inspiring optimism that cartels who rule by terror can be defeated when the people rise up against them. But the vigilantes’ success has also sparked fear of spreading justice at the barrel of a gun.

Known as autodefensas – or self defense squads — the vigilantes first emerged in indigenous villages in Michoacan state in 2011. But in recent months, they have mushroomed to have thousands of combatants across Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state, advancing into towns, villages and ranches, where they are shooting dead cartel operatives, destroying narco symbols and declaring the communities liberated. Thousands of police and soldiers have been sent to Michoacan but they have neither disarmed the militias nor stopped their advance. Instead, the government has tried to legalize the militias while soldiers have led a new offensive against the cartel, arresting more than 150 of its operatives, including a leader, Dionisio Loya Plancarte, alias “The Uncle,” who was caught hiding in a closet on Monday.

The meteoric rise of the vigilantes owes much to the way the Knights Templar preyed on the communities they controlled, extorting, kidnapping and raping. While still a major exporter of crystal meth to the United States, the Knights had diversified its crime portfolio, shaking down businesses large and small. In the “liberated” towns, residents reveal how far the Knights dominated their lives. Farmers of avocados and limes had to pay a quota for every kilo they produced; corn growers were forced to sell their maize cheaply to the criminals, who sold it at double the price to tortilla makers; people who owed money had to hand their entire homes to the cartel, who brought notaries to sign over the titles. Those who stood against the gangsters risked being tortured, sometimes publicly, or decapitated.

“They had our lives completely controlled. They knew about everything we did and we were always scared of being beaten or murdered,” says Salvador Esquivel, a commander in the vigilantes helping defend Paracuaro. Last year, Esquivel’s own brother, a state legislator, was hacked to death by alleged Knights Templar bearing machetes. “This is a fight for justice, because the government has never given that to us,” Esquivel says.

The Knights Templar also tried to control the community’s spiritual life. Its founder Nazario Moreno, alias “The Maddest One,” wrote a book of quasi-religious ideas called Mis Pensamientos, or my thoughts, which includes a mix of self help Christianity and peasant revolutionary politics. “It is better to be a master of one peso than a slave of two,” he wrote in one passage. Federal police reportedly killed Moreno in a gun-battle in Apatzingan in 2010, although Knights Templar operatives made away with his body. Following the alleged death, the gangsters began to venerate Moreno as a saint, painting images of him in medieval garb, a red cross on his chest. As the vigilantes have advanced into towns, they have smashed up shrines to Moreno and unearthed statues of him decorated in gold and diamonds. The vigilantes have also taken control of the homes of Knights Templar leaders, which boast luxury swimming pools and bars, in contrast to the shacks of many poor day laborers living nearby.

The administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has taken a mixed position on the vigilantes. Last year, federal police arrested dozens of militiamen in Michoacan, accusing them of working for the rival Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The vigilantes deny any cartel backing and have been lobbying for their companions’ release. On Jan. 14, soldiers attempted to disarm some vigilantes in the town of Actunez, provoking a shooting that killed several people. Since then, soldiers and federal police have taken no action against the militias and in many areas roadblocks manned by vigilantes stand meters away from roadblocks manned by police.

On Monday, the government signed an agreement with one of the most prominent vigilante leaders to incorporate the militias into a Rural Defense Corps, under the command of the army. The rural corps has existed for decades as a part time force supporting security in the countryside. “Those that have the vocation to participate in security matters, which is the principle that the self defense squads have claimed, should do it within institutions that are established by law,” Pena Nieto told reporters.

However, there are doubts about whether such an agreement will be legal or functional.

New vigilante cells are emerging in towns and villages across Michoacan and Guerrero every few days and there is little control of who lines up in the ranks. Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, warned of the spiraling growth of paramilitaries akin to those in Colombia who trafficked drugs and carried out kidnappings. “It is very easy to fall into this type of model where a Frankenstein, with no government controls, is created,” Vivanco says.

In the central square of Paracuaro, a vigilante leader who goes by the nom de guerre Comandante Cinco confessed to shooting dead several alleged gangsters. “We have to kill them. If they captured me, do you think they would let me live?” says the militiaman, who sported a bulletproof vest, assault rifle and a baseball cap stitched with his comandante name.

The vigilante leader explained that they are financed by donations from residents and businessmen, who prefer to support the vigilantes than pay protection to the cartel’s toughs. Some of their weapons are bought in the United States and smuggled south, he said, and others have been seized from the Knights Templar. Many of the farmers learned to shoot in hunting clubs, he says, while the vigilantes also trained with some members who had served in the Mexican army.

However, the vigilante commander says he would happily lay down his gun and return home once the Knights Templar are definitively destroyed. “I never imagined I would be fighting like this. The situation forced me to do it,” he says. “I have ranches with limes that I have to work on. But the Knights Templar won’t let me live in peace.”

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