When Enrique Peña Nieto assumed office as president of Mexico in 2012, he did not want to talk about the drug war. He had staked his candidacy on promises of reform; on the possibility of a Mexico freed from depictions in the international press of a nation defined by violence. That was an attractive idea. After all, the loss of life under Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who sent the military into the streets to do battle with organized crime, had been historic, with even the most conservative estimates of the dead and disappeared soaring well into the six-figure range. Peña Nieto avoided references to a sweeping, militarized campaign against drug cartels — the defining feature of Calderón’s tenure — instead favoring more generalized references to public security.

Unfortunately, avoiding the subject didn’t make it go away. Within two years, Mexican security forces at all levels would be implicated in a series of grisly crimes. The most infamous was a coordinated and violent attack on a group of rural college students in September 2014; 43 of the students were disappeared during the assault — their fates remain unknown. The students’ disappearance — and the state’s failure to find them — became emblematic of a broken government. It was not, however, the first sign of trouble on the horizon for Peña Nieto’s newly installed government.

An insurgency was brewing in Mexico from the moment the young president took office, the culmination of decades’ worth of institutional abandonment in a region known as the Hot Land in the state of Michoacán. At the center of the storm was a lime grower named Hipólito Mora Chávez, who had organized an armed uprising against a cultish drug cartel called Los Caballeros Templarios — the Knights Templar. The spark Mora ignited, soon fanned by a charismatic doctor from a neighboring town, drew thousands of recruits during Peña Nieto’s first year, capturing Mexico’s imagination and headlines around the world. They called themselves autodefensas, self-defense groups, and they were clearing town after town of Templarios through 2013, appearing to succeed where millions of drug-war dollars had fallen short after seven bloody years.

Like other nations that have wrestled with the rise of irregular armed groups taking and holding land, Peña Nieto’s government employed a strategy of divide and conquer, leveraging co-optation to serve its own needs while leaving the roots of the problem largely untouched. Once engaged, the federal government deputized and deployedautodefensaelements to root out and destroy a criminal group that had been a thorn in its side for years — regardless of clear evidence of criminal links within those elements. Those within the movement who failed to go along with the program were jailed or turned up dead, including some of the best-known autodefensa leaders.

For Mora, the man credited with starting it all, the demise of the movement would spell the end of life as he knew it and result in a profound personal loss.




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