Mexicans urged to arm, fight drug cartels – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


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An armed man who claim to be members of a self-defense group patrols the limits of Taixtan in the Michoacan state of Mexico, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. The army has largely stopped fighting drug cartels here, instead ordering soldiers to guard the dividing lines between gang territories so they won?t invade each other?s turf _ and turn a blind eye to the cartels? illegal activities. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

MEXICO CITY -- Even for the violence-wracked Mexican state of Michoacan, it was surprising when a priest called from the pulpit for parishioners to arm themselves against warring drug gangs.

"The cartel gunmen come, they take the livestock ... and you do nothing," the Rev. Alfredo Gallegos said in a sermon. "Well, get yourself a gun, the government can go to hell."

"We have to defend our lives," Gallegos continued.

Mexican law forbids most civilians from owning almost all firearms, except for extremely low-caliber hunting rifles or shotguns.

But Michoacan has a history of armed civilian "self defense" vigilante militia movements from 2013-14. Back then vigilantes managed to chase the dominant Knights Templar cartel out, but rival cartels like the Viagras and the Jalisco cartel have moved in. Kidnappings, killings and shootings have prompted thousands to flee their homes.

Gallegos, a parish priest better known as "Father Pistolas" for his habit of carrying a gun, was backed Friday by some fellow Roman Catholic clergy.

The Rev. Gregorio Lopez, a priest known for once wearing a flak vest during Mass, has spent the past few years running shelters for people who have fled their homes because of violence. He has also tried to help get asylum or refugee status for Michoacan residents in the United States.

Lopez called Gallegos' sermon "the cry of the people."

"He is trying to be the voice of the people and that is the feeling of the community -- that they should be armed," said Lopez, who served as a sort of spiritual adviser for some of the self-defense groups in 2014.

The Rev. Gilberto Vergara, who has a parish in Aguililla -- a mountain town that has been fought over repeatedly by warring cartels and whose residents were cut off from the outside world for months -- took a more cautious view.

"This thing about civilians taking up arms never ends well," Vergara said.

Still, he was circumspect about Gallegos' preaching style.

"I think that to say things in a direct way, you don't have to be offensive," Vergara said. "I would not act that way, but everybody has their own style."

The issue is far from academic or theological in Michoacan. The Mexican army has sent troops to the state, but only to act as a buffer between the warring cartels, trying to ensure that neither invades the other gang's territory.

But soldiers do little or nothing about illicit gang activities occurring just a few hundred yards from their checkpoints.

Vergara has previously criticized the inaction.

"The most shameful thing is the absence of the government, which has become simply a spectator in a war that has left so many dead, so much destruction," he said discussing people's frustration with the army.

That has led Michoacan residents to once again take up arms, in the face of rampant extortion by the Viagras, Jalisco and other gangs.

This time around, the self-defense movement -- now known as United Towns, or Pueblos Unidos -- sprang up in 2020 in the avocado-growing regions that were not the epicenter of the 2013 vigilante uprising.

As avocados have become a more widespread and lucrative crop, drug cartels and gangs have taken to extorting protection payments from growers.

This week, a convoy of at least 50 pickups full of hundreds of armed vigilantes drove into the town of Ziracuaretiro, near the city of Uruapan, to force the gangs out.

The vigilantes have been moving west, seeking to end extortion demands by gangs that farmers say amount to as much as $500 per farmer per month.

In the town of Tepalcatepec, on Michoacan's border with Jalisco state, vigilantes fought battles this week with gunmen that they say are from the Jalisco cartel.

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