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Why Getting 'El Chapo' Wasn't The End Of The Drug War


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

In Mexico last month, the capture of the world's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin Guzman, was a shot in the arm to the country's war on drug trafficking. But that war is not over, not even close. And nowhere is that more evident than in the western state of Michoacan. Residents there say the local authorities are doing nothing to stop the drug cartels. So they're taking up arms by the thousands to do it themselves.

NPR's Mexico correspondent Carrie Kahn has been reporting from that region. She says as the vigilantes grow in strength, there are questions about who they are and if they're really making it safer.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Most of the members of the vigilante group - they call themselves self-defense groups - are local farmers. So these are lemon growers, they're avocado growers, mango growers. And they have been extorted by this drug cartel for years. And we're talking millions of dollars that they were taking from them. They would control how much they could sell their crops at, who they could sell it to. There was just wide massive extortion by the drug cartel.

And they were just fed up. They couldn't go to the local authorities. There was nobody there to help them. A lot of the local police were in collusion with the drug traffickers. They took up arms themselves. They formed these groups. They began taking over small towns throughout this area of Michoacan, which is known as the hot lands, and slowly began making a move on the largest town in the region, which is called Apatzingan.

And that's when the feds moved in and said, we can't just have these armed civilian militias roaming the area around. And that's when they came in, and they tried to contain the self-defense groups. Thousands of troops, federal police and army are now in that region. So you talk to residents, you talk to business leaders, they say things are better, things are calmer. There isn't as much extortion or kidnapping, but they call it a tense calm right now.

RATH: Wow. Now, the self-defense force sprung up to fight against this drug cartel. They call themselves the Knights Templar. They appear to have made more of their money through extortion and illegal mining than drug trafficking. What can you tell us about the Knights Templar?

KAHN: They're a very interesting group. They are unlike any of the drug cartels that are in Mexico controlling parts of Mexico right now. They model themselves after medieval crusaders. So they sort of have a quasi-religious ethos to them. They're very interesting. They would preach, and at the same time, they would continue their drug running. But as their drug running, they control the meth trafficking in Michoacan.

But when that sort of wasn't enough for them, their downfall, I believe, of the drug cartels that they turned on the population. They began extorting. They began kidnapping and this illegal mining, which is just incredible. They controlled the port, one of the largest ports in Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas, and they were selling hundreds of millions of dollars of illegally mined or stolen ore from the mines of Michoacan to China.

And just this week, there was a big crackdown by the federal authorities there. Eleven shipyards were raided. They seized more than 120 million tons of ore. The calculations that I heard was this is almost 40 percent of all the ore mined in the state last year. And they arrested six Chinese nationals. So this cartel had an incredible hold on the state, an incredible financial hold on the state. And they were quite ruthless about how they kept that hold.

RATH: This all sounds like a huge massive security problem for President Enrique Peña Nieto. How is he handling it?

KAHN: I've heard comparisons of what is happening in Michoacan and the government's role in there like the U.S. role in Afghanistan. You know, it's not like the troops can leave, but they can't stay either forever indefinitely. So the president is in a very sticky situation. And Michoacan has been a big embarrassment for the Peña Nieto administration.

RATH: NPR's Carrie Kahn. Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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