The Unbearable Lightness of the Assassins

Tierra Caliente is a vast mountainous region of western central Mexico characterized by isolated mountain towns with little connection to the sea and tenuous links to the rest of the country. It is the territory of the mysterious and feared Knights Templar mafia. Writing for Mexico’s Nexos, a German sociologist visits the Templars’ rural strongholds and finds life both ordinary and strange among the killers.

I enter the oven that is Tierra Caliente for the first time in May 2012. I travel with heavy baggage: fear, uncertainty, and a long list of preconceptions and stereotypes. Due to my training as a sociologist, I try to maintain my neutrality and objectivity. Maintaining this professional appearance ends up being difficult, however: the extravagently expensive pickup trucks constantly passing through the dusty streets of Apatzingan de la Constitucion keep reminding me of something a Mexican expert on narcotrafficking told me when I said I wanted to go into the region to gather data for my doctoral thesis: “Sure you can get in there. The problem would be getting out in one piece afterwards.” Although he said it in jest, his comment reflected the central problem of academic studies of what we call organized crime: the general sense that it is “mission impossible” (in the words of Paddy Rawlinson) to get near the subject we are studying. As if one were a marine biologist with an allergy to water. Nevertheless, in spite of all the difficulties, in my case and in that of others who have investigated these “black holes” of the twenty-first century, there is another relevant bit of wisdom: I learned it from a colleague with ‘field experience’ among the militias of Darfur. ‘A good handshake and a smile opens just about any door.’

Almost as soon as the heat of the city swallows me up, my intention to keep a low profile in order to avoid the dangers of Tierra Caliente melts. A perfectly stereotypical “gringo”, I become the center of attention for a hundred or so people gathered that night to celebrate a baptism. Beyond the way I look, it is the information network of the ‘hawks’-lookouts- whose omnipresence becomes clear once you learn to read the landscape. In other words, learn to see the strategic points where they always stand, whether disguised as a taxi driver or a water-seller. This system is as efficient as all of the other elements and channels that make up the system of territorial control the Knights Templar have installed here. After three days staying in Aptatzingan, I have a visit from Tito, a young man of 25, who looks more like someone’s dream son-in-law than a member of one of the most feared criminal organizations on the continent. He, like other companeros, has had the Templar training: the military part, “out in the hills with the Central Americans,” who others tell me give military training. Likewise the psychological part, which consists of talks in which recruits are “taught the difference between good and evil, to be respectful, to not feel superior or above normal people.” Talks not unlike the kind he himself has given to transgressors like thieves and muggers, people who had to be punished by the Templars because “the institutions of the state simply do not work.” Normally, he notes, his job is “transporter,” that is, he is in charge of delivering necessities to those who are in hiding outside of the city, whether that be weapons, drinks, food or women. Today though, he has another mission: to find out if this “guero” [blondie]-already known on the street as “the German doctor”-isn’t a snitch. After some explaining, in which I clarify that my only intention is to study the topic from a more balanced perspective than that offered by the government in the press, I succeed in calming his suspicions while he continues nervously responding to messages coming in on his Blackberry.

I have passed the first test and the path begins to open toward the sacred center of the “Templar social movement,” as it calls itself, in rejection of its designation as a narcotrafficking cartel. The end of the paved roads marks the beginning of the nucleus of Templar territory; here it is guarded by young men with AR-15 rifles and pistols, who check my identification and take advantage of my presence to hear a few words in a foreign language: “Aha, so that is how German sounds then! Go ahead, they are waiting for you.” Life in the community seems to follow a normal rhythm, perhaps a bit slow under this burning sun. The midday silence is broken by some efforts at traditional dancing by some primary school students. Which part, I wonder, of this childish innocence, will later be transformed into parental concern, the mother whose 14-year-old “is hanging out with THEM now?” The Templar unit-some 15 armed men are waiting for me-is ranged in front of a store and its routine is unaffected by the passage of a Mexican Army convoy on the road. One of the endlessly chattering radios gives the warning and the usual cat-and-mouse game begins: “We have to go. Sorry, but we’ll be back in a minute to continue talking.”

I get into a pickup with Guerrero plates, driven by Alejandro, whose 5 year career ‘taking part’ gives him an older aspect than one of the “normal” young men of 21 or so. He carries a rifle in one hand. In a three-vehicle convoy we cross the near-desert landscape of Tierra Caliente; it looks almost black-and-white from inside the cab with its polarized windows. The high speed we move at only drops to take turns as we travel through a labyrinth of canyons and dirt roads. We come to a stop in front of a cemetery which except for the tiny colored crosses that signal its existence, seems an organic part of the landscape. The continuing doubts about my real reasons for being here are reflected in more than this rather symbolic choice of meeting place. A cheerful, almost hyperactive, and very respectful Servando Gomez Martinez, who calls himself a “Narco with a heart,” reminds me of what befalls traitors:”I have killed plenty of people, but only those who deserved it. People who lie, who try to pass for something different than they really are, people who don’t tell the truth…” This disquisition comes after he has shown me proudly the two silver pistols that he keeps in his belt: one adorned with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (“I am not a follower of hers, but I do pray to her sometimes: so you see how much I’ve suffered.”), and is inscribed with [his nickname]‘La Tuta‘; the other pistol bears the sign of the Knights Templar and is inscribed ‘El Profe‘[ ‘The Teacher’].

My verbal encounters give me vast amounts of information, but it is my observations of everyday interactions that are most revealing. I am waiting for the radios of the 12 young killers wandering around in front of the little shop not far from Cuatro Caminos to alleviate my distress, to finally squawk instructions for my next meeting. The wife of the local ‘encargado’ (chief of post) offers me Nescafe and quickly sets up a fan- “so the guero won’t die of the heat.” As if that were my biggest worry. One of the killers takes out a guitar and starts playing love songs with three of his colleagues as the sun begins to set. To be honest, I would have expected the atmosphere to be a little closer to the sense of a permanent state of emergency that you tend to expect, given the common outsider understanding of this place. That media narrative that emerges from a few bits of disordered information. The unbearable lightness of being (a killer)? I don’t know, but in any case, the human capacity to adapt to even the most severe circumstances is impressive. The psychological power of denial is certainly fascinating.

This lightness -both inexplicable and inevitable- is on display in the interactions between the members of this organization and the civilian population, who behave much more normally than one might expect. I attend a school graduation party at a hamlet in the Apatzingan area that is famous for counting among its offspring one of the characters who adorn the gigantic “most wanted” billboards on the Michoacan highways. Even more cheerful than the party outfits of the children and the colorful banners adorning the schoolyard in this little village of some 15 blocks of huts, is the joyous feeling that radiates from the party attendees, shouting and laughing. Finally arrived, this is a big day for the little ones and their families. So big, it seems, that the presence of the de facto authorities is required. In the middle of the multitude, mostly women and children, more and more armed men seem to appear, their pistols poorly hidden in the backs of their jeans. Little by little these are complemented by individuals more powerfully armed. The fact that some are carrying semiautomatic rifles mounted with grenade launchers is an indication that someone important is on the way. When the person in question gets out of the convoy that now fills the previously empty space in front of the school, he sends for me. “The patron wants to see you.” Our talk begins at a table that has been set up a few meters from a party that is now entering its most intense and noisy phase. One after another, party attendees approach. None show a trace of fear in saying hello to the most-wanted criminal, someone who according to Tierra Caliente legend eats the hearts of his enemies “so he can have their courage.” A couple of them even make fun of his apparent weight loss.

In communities like the one described here, which constitute not merely the operational nucleus of the Templars’ world, but its family nucleus, a phenomenon we might call pragmatic tolerance prevails. Frequently Tierra Caliente is called a “lawless country.” On the contrary, though, it is the lack of solutions and help from the government that has allowed the Knights Templar to present themselves as “the best of the worst.” They provide a minimal degree of social order, of de facto law and order – for example via a parallel judicial system that people say “allows us to leave the doors unlocked again.” This is not (only) a “call to serve their neighbors” as [founding capo]Nazario Moreno Gonzalez once claimed. It also (and perhaps first and foremost) is intended to create a sense of legitimacy for the organization. In this part of their territory, the Knights Templar enjoy an aura of popular protection that armors them against territorial incursions by such enemies as the Federal Police and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. For many, better the devil you know. Isabel, who has experienced the incorporation of her hamlet into Templar territory, says she does not understand why they felt the need to take over every community institution in addition to the institutions of authority. She complains that the village festival, although nowadays with more pomp, “isn’t ours anymore.” She adds though, that “at least we know them.” This last position fits with the attempt by the Templars to construct to the figure of the ‘other’; that is, members of other criminal organizations like the Zetas and the CJNG, as more than an enemy of their own organization-as an enemy of the people of Michoacan. A common front is needed in the face of an external aggressor.

Like others, Isabel says of the Templars “if you don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you.” In spite of this, this mutual understanding does not actually characterize the actions of the Knights Templar throughout their territory. Their scheme of alternate government – a description that such writers as Harold Trinkunas and Anne Clunan point out takes in a much larger phenomenon than simple narcotrafficking is of course full of contradictions. They discriminate between “their own blood” and “the others”: communities that they consider inferior. In the end it is not a social contract between equals. Those who resist “being cured” or supporting “the cause” via “contributions” must take the consequences. In reference to a particular local population that publicly rejected being added to Templar territory, one leader says in an interview: “we wanted to patch things up, but they wouldn’t let it happen. I told them that they wouldn’t get away with it. I represent all of Michoacan, and they are just a handful.”

In spite of their successes in heading off, at least up until now, the incursions of the federal government as well as other actors, thanks to the high levels of social tolerance they have enjoyed, the future of the Templars is in tension due to a dynamic its founders could not anticipate: the inability – or unwillingness-of all members of the organization to commit to maintaining a balance between the extraction of resources and the image as forces of order. One of the Templar leaders explains that reported abuses are due to the fact that they “cannot cure all of the young men.” Templar excesses have led to the rise of a civic resistance that could undermine their role as the best of the worst. The rapid proliferation of informal community police forces and self defense groups in their territory could well force them into a trap of legitimacy essentially of their own making.

Falko Ernst