The Mexican federal government has entered into more than 20 municipalities in the state of Michoacan, and, so far, the situation has appeared to be kept under control by the army. Nevertheless, self-defense groups have patrolling nearby cities like Apatzingán, where the so-called "Knights Templar" have threatened even to set fire to the cathedral.
The Vicar General of the Diocese of Apatzingán, the Rev. Javier Cortés, has asked the federal government, the army, the navy, and the federal police to "act fast, yet with much tact and prudence, for the good of the civic community,” affirming the existence of a threat on the part of the Templars to burn the cathedral.
"Crime assaults and attempts to exacerbate an atmosphere of fear among the population, so prompt and effective intervention by law enforcement is required," said Fr. Cortés with respect to the strategy designed by the federal government, which involves taking control of the region of Tierra Caliente (where Apatzingán is located), disarming the self-defense militia groups in the community, and pursuing the “Knights Templar,” a band of drug dealers, extortionists, kidnappers, and assassins who have exerted control over Tierra Caliente for many years without the intervention of state and federal governments – until now.
According to Fr. Cortés, the sense of the local church "is that there is a great void – a very large hole, indeed – left by the absence of a proper law enforcement presence, which has neither fulfilled its duty of preserving the safety of the people, nor come face to face with this situation." Fr. Cortés said that the faithful nevertheless flock to churches with fervor, leaving their homes with great caution – all this because we are aware of the power of prayer. It is a great power, and people need it, so we have seen increased attendance at liturgical celebrations."
Finally, Father Cortés stated: "It would be a mistake if the federal government were to seek to disarm the self-defense paramilitaries rather than seize the weapons of an organized crime syndicate that does not show its face without first ensuring the security of Michoacan’s population, although,” he clarified, “this is by no means an endorsement of the militias. In fact, we disapprove of unauthorized use of weapons.”
The Priest with the Bulletproof Vest
One person who has become an emblem of ecclesial solidarity with the people of Tierra Caliente is the Rev. Gregorio López, who is Pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption in Apatzingán. Fr. “Goyo,” as he is called, is 46 years old and a native of Apatzingán, and over the past ten years, and has publicly denounced the breakdown that exists in the region of Tierra Caliente. He knows full well that his repudiation of the violence may lead to his death. "To die for a cause such as the freedom of my people is well worth the risk," he said in an interview by the Mexican newspaper, El Universal.
Fr. Goyo has become an reference for those who point to individuals who have stood together with the people in opposition to the Knights Templar, who have devastated the area and terrorized the people, especially the farmers, ranchers and merchants of Tierra Caliente. "Why has this region been invaded by so many drug cartels? It’s the agriculture – avocados put us in the world market, and that means a significant inflow of foreign capital. Drug gangs have enjoyed the support of state governments,” stated Fr. Goyo in the interview, who since October of 2004 has worn a bulletproof vest underneath his cassock while celebrating Mass.
The Fr. Goyo has said that he will support the disarmament of the self-defense groups once the Templars disappear. In the same impromptu interview, Fr. Goyo said the leaders of the self-defense militias are noble people – ranchers and lemon harvesters among them. “That these people are members of a ‘drug cartel’ is a lie concocted by the Templars. They are members of the community who have no civic authority and who do not necessarily know what is in the law books. All they know is that this criminal group has raped their wives, kidnapped their parents, robbed their homes. The government ought to respect what the people decide."
When questioned about his leadership and whether his role could make him a leader of the resistance of the people of Tierra Caliente against drug traffickers, Fr. Goyo acknowledged that his role “is not exercised through arms, but through conscience. Our most powerful weapons are truth, consciousness, and justice. We must make it clear to the people that we are being violated, defiled, and trampled."