Latin America
8:01 pm
Wed January 22, 2014

Vigilantes Strike Back Against Mexican Cartels

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Mexico, thousands of federal troops remain in dozens of towns in the western state of Michoacan. That's where civilian vigilante groups have emerged in recent months to fight off the Knights Templar cartel. Authorities say they've arrested 38 cartel members, but won't move to disarm the so-called self-defense groups. Heroes to some, gang members to others, these vigilantes are now on the offensive, even taking to social media to spread their message. NPR's Carrie Kahn has the story.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: At an impromptu checkpoint at the entrance to Nueve Italia, about two dozen men stand behind piles of sandbags. They stop cars and check IDs of all coming in and out of their small town in this western edge of Michoacan state. This week, they stand guard without their weapons.

JOEL GUTIERREZ: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: Nineteen-year-old Joel Gutierrez(ph) says he and the others in their so-called self defense group took of their masks and stored their arms out of respect for the thousands of federal troops now patrolling the region. The vigilantes may have laid down their arms, but they've been anything but silent. They're all over Mexico's social networks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: On the group's Facebook page and Twitter account, this video starts off with the message to Mexico and the world. The brave people of Michoacan have awoken and are taking back their land and dignity from ruthless drug traffickers and inept governments. The grainy video appears in response to growing criticism that the self defense groups are not authentic, but financed by rival cartels.

To deflect the accusations, the group is also posting images of the Knights Templar and their extravagant lifestyles, including dozens of pictures of the inside of homes abandoned by alleged cartel members who fled as federal troops moved in. The photos show elaborate houses with closets full of Chanel and Christian Dior clothes and racks of Louis Vuitton and Gucci shoes.

And they've exposed the long suspected link between two Mexican (foreign language spoken) singers and one of the Knights Templar leaders, Enrique Plancarte Solis, also known as el-Kikin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: The singers are Melissa and Kiki, reportedly the cartel leaders' two adult children. This music video making the social network rounds features Melissa, a bleach-blonde in short shorts and tight bustiers posing in several scenes shot in the abandoned luxury homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA: (Singing in foreign language)

KAHN: Despite being surrounded by extravagant trappings, Melissa sings about disavowing the material lifestyle. Today, she responded to the rising criticism of her alleged narco-links by posting on her Instagram account a popular song with a crude message loosely translated: I could care less. For their part, federal authorities are staying out of the social media wars.

In his first interview with international journalists, the newly appointed federal commissioner for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo Cervantes, says the government's priority is neither to disarm the self defense groups, nor arrest top leaders of the Knights Templar, but, he says, to restore order in Michoacan.

ALFREDO CASTILLO CERVANTES: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: We are talking about neutralizing the Knights Templar, says Castillo. Dismantling their financial networks and removing their corrupt political and police accomplices. Castillo insists this is the most efficient and least violent way to take down the drug cartel. He admits that approach will take a long time and says federal forces will stay in the region as long as necessary.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KAHN: And according to the self defense group's propaganda postings, they aren't leaving any time soon either. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.