LA RUANA, Mexico – Residents of a western Mexico area who endured months besieged by a drug cartel cheered the arrival of hundreds of Mexican soldiers Monday.
People in La Ruana in Michoacan state lined the main road to greet more than a dozen troop transports and heavily armed Humvees with applause and shouts of joy.
The town's supplies had been blocked after the Knights Templars cartel declared war on the hamlet. The cartel dominates much of the state, demanding extortion payments from businessmen and storeowners, and even low-wage workers.
In February, the town formed self-defense squads to kick the cartel out, drawing the wrath of the gang. Convoys of cartel gunmen attacked the town, which was forced to throw up stone barricades and build guard posts.
Supplies like gasoline, milk and cooking gas began to run low as cartel gunmen threatened to burn any trucks bringing in goods.
On Monday, hundreds of soldiers moved in, erecting checkpoints on the highway leading into La Ruana and setting up an operating base in the town.
"This war has been won!" Hipolito Mora, leader of the self-defense movement, told hundreds of cheering townspeople gathered along the main road, including dozens of self-defense patrol members wearing white T-shirts and carrying shotguns.
Mora said the town had agreed to stop community patrols and let the army take over security in La Ruana. But he said the community would keep its weapons and would start patrols again if the army left.
The idea that troops might come in and seize a town's weapons, or stay only a few weeks, worried people throughout the crime-ridden area. So in town after town along the main highway through Michoacan's hot lowlands known as the Tierra Caliente, self-defense squads welcomed the army's arrival, but vowed to keep their guns.
The highway is littered with the charred hulks of supply trucks, the smoking remains of burned-out sawmills and the fire-blackened walls of fruit warehouses set afire by the Knights Templars cartel in retaliation for the towns' rebellion.
In the nearby town of Buenavista, many of the masked, lightly armed self-defense patrol members manning a highway checkpoint said they welcomed the army — but vowed to resist any attempts to take their guns.
They hung a banner beside the roadway: "Gentlemen of the federal police and the Mexican army, we would prefer to die at your hands, than at those of these stupid, stinking scum," it said, referring to the cartel.
A healthy dose of skepticism remained about the chances of success for sending the army into Michoacan — a tactic that then-President Felipe Calderon used to launch his offensive against drug cartels in 2006.
The Michoacan-based Knights Templar is, by all accounts, at least as strong today as its predecessor cartel, the La Familia gang, was in 2006. Instead of attacking the cartel's strongholds in nearby cities like Apatzingan, the troops are fighting a sort of rear-guard action, protecting towns outside the main urban areas without going to the root of the problem.
Rafael Garcia Zamora, mayor of Comoalacan, a town largely cut off from the outside world after it formed its own self-defense force last week, said residents welcomed the arrival of troops, but worried the force might soon leave again and expose the town to the cartel's wrath.
"We don't doubt their ability," he said of the army. "But we need them to help us" root out the criminals and not let the cartel continue to grow.
"The government should have mobilized the army to do this 10 or 12 years ago," Garcia Zamora said.
"We have had temporary raids, with three or four thousand soldiers, but they come and they leave. And you know what? Every time after there is a raid, severed heads show up," he said, referring to drug cartel retaliation against those who help the army.
"People have the courage to speak up, but that has its consequences," he said.