Timeline: The rise of vigilantism in Michoacán, Mexico

by May 2, 2014 11:43AM ET

Thousands of people in the western Mexican state have picked up arms to end a violent cartel's reign of terror.


For the past 15 months, people in dozens of towns across the state have risen up to fight back against more than a decade of terror at the hands of a succession of drug cartels. Most recently, the Knights Templar-Guard of Michoacán or Los Caballeros Templarios has extorted Michoacán’s citizens, taking money from everyone from government officials to those who operate mining operations to farmers growing avocados and limes. Those who refused to pay the cartel often put themselves and their families at risk of kidnapping, rape, and even murder.  

Many speculate that the cartel’s ad hoc taxes on produce growers contributed to the price of avocados going up more than 20 percent in the last year and the price of limes quadrupling from the beginning of February to the end of March. (Michoacán supplies the U.S. with 80 percent of its Hass avocados—the ones  typically used for making guacamole—and 95 percent of its limes.)

Realizing that the federal and local authorities weren’t doing anything to stop the cartel—and in many cases were collaborating with them—farmers, miners, and businessmen started to arm themselves and go on the offensive, setting up checkpoints to keep Knights Templar members from entering their communities and hunting associates of the syndicate down. Eventually their efforts gained the attention of the government.

The situation has put the Mexican government in a difficult situation. Their response to the rise of the self-defense groups has been erratic. In some instances, they have engaged in joint operations with the militias. At other times, they have arrested the vigilantes and blocked their advance.

The government has set a deadline of Saturday, May 10, for the militias to step aside and let federal officials lead the fight against the Knights Templar. It remains to be seen whether that transition takes place smoothly, if at all. For now, here’s a quick backgrounder on the rise of Michoacán’s militias.

Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

Tune in to the latest episode of Fault Lines, “Mexico's Vigilante State” premiering Saturday, May 3, at 7p ET. It will air again on Al Jazeera America Saturday, May 3, at 10p ET and Sunday, May 4, at 2a ET.