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Priests take the lead in fierce revolt against drug gang in Mexico’s Michoacan

By Tim Johnson
McClatchy Newspapers

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APATZINGAN, MEXICO: In medieval times, a powerful Christian military order known as the Knights Templar fought during the Crusades. Today, meth-peddling gangsters have taken the Templar name, and in an ironic twist they are finding Roman Catholic clergy among their fiercest enemies.

In the embattled Mexican state of Michoacan, Catholic priests are openly backing armed vigilante groups that are waging war against the Knights Templar gang.

Some priests allow the vigilantes to ring church bells to summon citizens to meetings. Others use pulpits to lambaste officials for colluding with the Knights Templar.

The anger of the clergy is aimed with equal vehemence at gangsters and at government officials, who they say have not done enough to rein in crime and extortion. That vexation will get a vast airing at morning Mass today, when priests across the Apatzingan diocese will read a scathing pastoral letter from Bishop Miguel Patino Velazquez that accuses federal police and soldiers of doing little to capture Knights Templar bosses.

“Their leaders are fully identified and yet no authority stops them,” the letter says.

In his letter, Patino evokes the Nazi era, saying Christian believers should not only console the victims but also halt the campaign of killing.

“We ask politicians, the government and the Interior Secretariat to give people of our region clear signals that in reality they want to halt the ‘killing machine,’ ” Patino writes.

Michoacan, a fertile agricultural state along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, has been the site of criminal turmoil since the middle of the last decade, when gangsters turned the state into a hub for production of methamphetamine, adding to their marijuana and cocaine smuggling business.

Since February 2013, a vigilante campaign by armed civilians has spread across nearly a third of Michoacan. The vigilantes call themselves self-defense groups or community police, and they have won broad citizen support.

In barely 11 months, the vigilantes have occupied at least 15 townships. In each, they have disbanded municipal police and run off politicians believed linked to organized crime.

On Monday, the country’s interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, stepped in as the vigilante groups nearly encircled this city of 140,000, the center of the Knights Templar empire, for fear that an attempt to dislodge the gangsters would lead to a bloodbath.

Osorio Chong announced the deployment of more federal police and troops to Michoacan state to quell the violence. He exhorted the vigilante groups to disarm.

Since then, federal police have assumed security duties in 20 townships and rounded up 308 municipal police officers and moved them across the nation to the state of Tlaxcala for ostensible retraining.

But for many priests, that was not enough. They echo demands that authorities arrest three top cartel leaders. They also reject disarmament of the self-defense groups, saying it would lead gangsters to take vengeance.


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