URAPICHO, Mexico — At the entrance of this western Mexican village, farmers in ski masks carry rifles as they man a checkpoint to protect their people, fearful that a drug cartel may strike at any time.
Urapicho, a hillside village surrounded by forests, corn fields and cow pastures, has become the latest community in the western state of Michoacan to take security in its own hands against the menace of organized crime.
The decision by the residents of Urapicho to turn into a vigilante village highlights the state of fear that many Mexicans live in amid a brutal drug war, and their distrust of local police.
“The barricade is there to prevent anybody who wants to hurt the population from coming in,” said a 52-year-old corn farmer, who like others in Urapicho refused to give his name for fear of retaliation.
People in this village of 1,500 say they were at peace until the bodies of two suspected drug cartel members turned up on the road leading up to Urapicho in August.
Since then, villagers say, some residents have received threatening phone calls from people blaming them for the deaths while rumors swirl that the gang wants to make Urapicho pay for its slain comrades.
Hundreds of people attended a meeting in the village square to discuss what to do next. By a show of hands, they agreed to set up a 24-hour checkpoint, placing rocks on the road to slow cars entering the isolated village.
Armando Ballinas, a state public safety official, said the cartel provided financial aid to some villagers and began to threaten them when they refused to work for the gang. The discovery of the bodies heightened those tensions.
The state of Michoacan is the scene of a turf war between two cartels, La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group the Knights Templar, which are fighting for control of drug trafficking routes.
The feud has sparked street shootouts, kidnappings and brutal killings in the state, with bodies sometimes turning up on the side of roads.
Now in Urapicho, four burly men, one of them wearing a military green jacket, carry shotguns and assault rifles under a blue tent while others hide behind trees as they check the identification papers of unknown visitors.
Only one paved road leads up to the village, a quiet hamlet with a bullring and brick homes where women wear colorful Purepecha indigenous dresses and sell them on the street while men in straw hats tend to the fields.
Local police are not welcome in Urapicho — like in the rest of Mexico, municipal police have a reputation for corruption. A municipal police commander countered that indigenous villages traditionally want to “impose their own law.”
The villagers say they want the more trustworthy army instead to set up a permanent post.
President Felipe Calderon deployed tens of thousands of troops across the nation to crack down on cartels in 2006. Since then, an estimated 60,000 people have died in the drug war.
“The government is the one that must take care of this issue but until now we have had no support,” said a 30-year-old musician wearing a baseball cap. “We want peace.”
Many Urapicho residents work outside the village but around 80 farmers and street vendors have stopped going to their jobs for fear of being kidnapped or killed, villagers said.
“The country in general is living through this situation,” Nicolas Zalapa Vargas, the mayor of the municipality of Paracho, which includes Urapicho, told AFP. “This situation is not exclusive to Michoacan, Paracho or Urapicho.”
Talks will be held with the state government to discuss the village’s petition to have an army outpost as well as its own community patrol, he said.
The people of Urapicho are following in the footsteps of the bigger nearby town of Cheran, where residents took up arms last year against illegal loggers raiding their forest.
More than a year after its revolt, the town of Cheran now has brick checkpoints manned by armed men and women wearing blue uniforms with the words “community patrol” emblazoned on the back.
In Urapicho, some residents are uneasy with the security arrangement.
A 27-year-old grocery store worker said she didn’t like having to show what was in her bags at the checkpoint, or having to explain why she was going out at a certain time.
“It’s not good,” she said as she sold candy to a child. “We can’t be at ease with this.”