Pope Francis arrived Tuesday in Mexico’s troublesome western state of Michoacan, where the cult-like Knights Templar drug cartel and its pseudo-messianic leader terrorized the population until farmers revolted against them.
The 79-year-old pope will lead a mass with priests, nuns and seminarians in the state capital, Morelia, followed by a tour of the city’s cathedral and a second mass with Mexican youths in a stadium.
Hundreds greeted him at the airport while some 2,000 swarmed the colonial plaza as they waited for a glimpse of the pope amid a heavy police contingent across the city.
“I have faith that things will change after the pope’s visit, that we will realize that violence is not the way to go,” said Jose Rodriguez, a migrant who traveled from Los Angeles for the pope’s visit.
Michoacan endured some of the most gruesome episodes of Mexico’s drug war, which has left 100,000 people dead or missing in the past decade.
Dozens of priests were killed in that span, including a handful in Michoacan, where one clergymen celebrated mass with a bulletproof vest.
Francis has used his five-day cross-country trip, which ends Wednesday, to press Mexican leaders to provide “effective security” to their citizens.
It was just steps away from Morelia’s 17th century cathedral that two grenades blew up in a packed plaza during independence day festivities on September 15, 2008, killing eight people and injuring some 100. Drug cartels were the main suspects.
– ‘The Craziest One’ –
While the massacre shocked the country, the gangs mainly afflicted rural areas of Michoacan, especially the fertile lime and avocado region known as “Tierra Caliente” (“Hot Land”).
It was there in 2006 that the country came to know La Familia Michoacana after the cartel rolled five severed heads down a dance floor with a message promising “divine justice.”
The gang was founded by Nazario Moreno, alias “The Craziest One,” a self-styled messiah who wrote the “Gospel of La Familia” — a religion-inspired rulebook banning gang members from consuming drugs or alcohol.
The government wrongly declared him dead after a 2010 gunfight with police. Troops killed him for good in 2014.
After his first death, the Knights Templar cartel emerged and Moreno became a folk saint known as “San Nazario,” with shrines in his honor dressed like a crusader with a red cross.
While the Knights claimed to defend Michoacan against other cartels, the gang killed, kidnapped and extorted regular people.
Fed up with the police’s inability or unwillingness to act, farmers formed vigilante groups in 2013.
“We had to do a job that wasn’t ours to do,” Hipolito Mora, a lime grower and founder of the vigilante movement, told AFP.
Even clergymen were not safe. In 2013, authorities provided security to a bishop who backed the vigilantes over fears of an imminent attack.
Another pro-vigilante priest in Apatzingan, a former cartel bastion, wore a bulletproof vest during mass.
– The New Family –
The federal government deployed security forces to help the self-defense forces, leading to the capture or killing of the cartel’s top leaders.
“Francis will see a Michoacan that is very different than when we were hurt by drug trafficking,” said Jaime Rivera, a security expert at Michoacana University.
“But he will also find a financially broke government that hasn’t been able to eliminate criminal cells that continue to commit crimes.”
While the cartel was severely weakened, smaller gangs have emerged, including La Nueva Familia (The New Family).
Meanwhile, the vigilantes were sullied by infighting and accusations that some were infiltrated by cartels.
Authorities decided to fold the militias into a government-sanctioned rural defense force in 2014. Authorities are now integrating them into regular police units.
“Hopefully the government will do its job well so that we don’t have to take up arms again,” Mora said.