COALCOMAN, Mexico – Mexico's top security officials gathered Tuesday in the western state of Michoacan to launch a campaign with thousands of army troops to rescue towns besieged, sometimes for months, by the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel.
Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong and his national security team met with local officials in the state capital of Morelia at a time of escalating tension in Michoacan, where communities mistrustful of state authorities have been creating their own vigilante forces for protection against the cartels.
But it was unclear that sending troops to Michoacan, which is how President Felipe Calderon launched a nationwide offensive against drug cartels in 2006, would work any better than it has in the past.
Michoacan is the Mexican state most visibly dominated by a drug cartel. Gunmen in vehicles marked only with the Knights Templar symbol, a red cross, roam the countryside, burning businesses and homes of anyone who refuses to pay them protection money.
The cartel boldly marked its territory by building small roadside chapels to "Saint Nazario," a fallen leader of the quasi-religious drug cartel who was killed in a battle with police in 2010.
As the convoys of soldiers rode into the steamy territory known as Tierra Caliente late Monday, they passed the remains of those chapels destroyed by local self-defense groups that sprang up in February to fight the cartel.
In the town of Coalcoman, the convoys sped past the still-smoldering remains of at least three sawmills torched by the cartel's gunmen last week after that town rose up against them. They also passed the burned-out hulks of two trucks and a passenger bus torched by the gunmen on the highway outside of town, as a warning to anyone who tried to bring supplies or reinforcements in.
It was the latest of several communities to form an armed self-defense group to kick out the Knights Templar cartel and end their extortion racket.
"They demanded we pay 120 pesos (about $10) for every square meter of wood we sold," said one of the sawmill owners whose business was burned. Gunmen torched the mills that didn't pay, said the owner, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Local avocado growers were charged 2,000 pesos (about $175) for every hectare of orchards they owned.
"The man who charged you would say it was money for 'the company.' They didn't say the name of the cartel," recalled one resident of the town of Buenavista, who later battled the cartel. "But if you didn't pay, the trucks with the red crosses would show up and start killing people."
Like most cartel opponents, the man wouldn't give his name for fear of reprisals.
Government intervention so far has been against the community patrols. Some 40 members of vigilante patrols were arrested in April after the government accused them of having links to a rival drug cartel, Jalisco Nueva Generation. Townspeople deny that.
Still, residents of La Ruana lined up on the town's main street Monday to cheer the arrival of the soldiers.
Hipolito Mora, the leader of the self-defense forces in La Ruana, agreed to stop community patrols and let the army take over patrolling.
"We reached an agreement that we are going to return to our homes and work," Mora told the crowd of cheering townspeople. "But I told them (the army) that if they leave us alone for one day, we are going to return to duty again."
Associated Press writer Gustavo Ruiz contributed to this report from Morelia, Mexico.