Vladimiro - Michoacan photo

Vladimiro Carranza Chavez, once a mariachi performer in Los Angeles, now defends his Mexican hometown against the Knights Templar drug cartel.Alan Ortega/KQED

For Vladimiro Carranza Chavez, a onetime Los Angeles mariachi, joining a ragtag militia to fight against one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartels followed a series of tragedies, including the slaying of three of his brothers and his own kidnapping and torture.

“The moment came that, in order to survive, we had to fight,” he says.

Reny Pineda enlisted in the high-stakes battle against the drug lords with support from his family in California and a Colt pistol handed down from his father.

“We don’t trust anyone,” he says. “Not the government. Not the police. Just ourselves.”

Since 2012, an unprecedented uprising by motley bands of vigilantes in the Mexican state of Michoacán has put the Knights Templar drug organization on the run and forced the federal government to take firm, if belated, action to end years of gruesome violence.

Fueling the movement are thousands of migrants who lived in California and other U.S. states before returning to Mexico. Many worked on farms in the Central Valley or in factories and construction sites in Southern California before being deported or traveling back voluntarily.

Since 2010, there have been more than 160,000 deportations of Michoacános by the Obama administration, according to Mexico’s federal migration agency.

Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexican American security analyst, says many of the migrants had developed a degree of trust in police and other civic institutions while living in the U.S., making the conditions back home all the more shocking upon their return.

“They come back to Michoacán, and they find this complete warlike situation,” Salazar says. “People are getting killed, people are being disappeared, women are being raped, children are forced to work for some of these drug organizations. It’s surprising these self-defense movements didn’t pop up sooner.”

A co-founder of the civilian militias is Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a lanky physician who embodies the movement’s deep connections to California. Mireles lived with his family for a decade in Modesto, where he worked for the local Red Cross.

After moving back to Michoacán, Mireles says the Knights Templar cartel launched a brutal campaign of extortion, rape and murder. Unlike in the United States, he says there was no place to turn for protection because local authorities often were working for the cartel.

“We had nobody to help us,” Mireles says. “Then we started planning in a small group. We spent two years planning how to make something.”

In late June, Mexican authorities detained Mireles on accusations of possessing illegal weapons and drugs. Mireles has resisted government efforts to disband the militias, saying armed civilian groups still are necessary in parts of Mexico controlled by drug gangs.

Mireles’ group of informal advisers included Jose Ramirez, an old friend from the Central Valley who lives and works near Fresno. Ramirez helped raise discreet support for the movement among the hundreds of thousands of Michoacános living in California.

“People were afraid to let others know,” he says. “It’s like who do you trust, who do you not trust?” 

Some of the men who joined Mireles’ movement are unlikely warriors.

Pineda was born in Michoacán but left Mexico as a young boy when his family headed north to California. He grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from high school and started a family. He was working off and on in construction when he got caught up in a drug trafficking case. Instead of facing possible prison time, Pineda fled south across the border.

That was in 2010, just as the Knights Templar organization was tightening its grip. With the cartel extorting local businesses, ranches and farms, Pineda says it was difficult to make a living. Five friends disappeared and are among the hundreds of people believed to have been killed by the drug gangs.

“It was terrible,” he says.

So when a group of ranchers and farmers from a cluster of nearby towns approached Pineda and his family, they decided to join.

“The most important thing was to be able to work, without paying money to somebody,” he says, “and to stop the killing.”

This story was produced in collaboration with KQED. Listen to this story here

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Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Ana Arana is an award-winning veteran investigative journalist and media trainer with experience covering international organized crime. She is the former director of Fundacion MEPI, a Mexico City investigative journalism project that carried out long-form U.S.-Mexico investigations from 2010-2015, pairing up with U.S. news outlets and Latin American news organizations. A former U.S. foreign correspondent who reported from Central America and Colombia for CBS News and The Miami Herald, Arana has worked most recently as a freelance journalist and editor. She has received several awards for outstanding journalism, including a team award from the Online News Association, a Third Coast Audio Festival Silver Award, a Peabody and two Overseas Press Club awards, among others.

Grace Rubenstein is a journalist and media producer specializing in public health, mental health and immigration. Her stories – told variously in words, photos, audio and video – have appeared in TheAtlantic.com, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, KQED, The Bay Citizen, and Parenting and Edutopia magazines. She is the multimedia editor for TED Books and a regular contributor at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Grace speaks Spanish fluently, can’t resist a good salsa beat, has lived in Mexico and has reported stories across languages. She is a fourth-generation San Franciscan.