APATZINGAN, Mexico — The scent of limes in the air, Papa Pitufo shouted orders to his men and consulted by cellphone with his far-flung forces.
The gray-bearded farmer has emerged as the senior leader of the vigilante movement that has taken over a large swath of wealthy Michoacan state, one of the world’s top producers of avocados and limes but dominated for nearly a decade by ruthless drug cartels.
For the first time in modern Mexican history, an armed civilian band has ejected a drug cartel from its environs. For now, members of the so-called Knights Templar are lying low, challenged by rebelling citizens — including some who have returned to their families’ homes from California — finally fed up with unrelenting extortion, kidnapping, arson, rapes and killings.
“Where we have a presence, (the Knights Templar) no longer have influence. They are gone,” said Papa Pitufo, holding court at the main lime market in Apatzingan.
But the vigilantes have also proved a major challenge to the young government of President Enrique Pena Nieto — making clear that official security forces had been unable to protect their own people. Initially, federal forces tried to cooperate with the vigilantes. Now fearing a Frankenstein-like scenario, authorities are trying to rein them in.
Saturday was the federally imposed deadline in Michoacan for thousands of “self-defense” forces, as they call themselves, to register their weapons and formally disband. They are being allowed to keep their handguns and assault weapons (but no rocket launchers or bazookas) and will be invited to join a new rural police force. As of the weekend, at least 3,316 people had signed up and more than 6,000 weapons were registered.
That too is unprecedented; no other Mexican state allows ordinary citizens to legally retain AK-47s and other military-style assault weapons.
Papa Pitufo — his real name is Estanislao Beltran, and his nom de guerre translates as Papa Smurf — said he expected all of his people would comply with the registration requirement.
“When we started this fight, there were daily battles, barricades everywhere. This was a place of great sadness. We had to act,” said Beltran, 57, who looks a bit like a skinny Santa Claus. An armed Santa, however: a sparkling, silver-plated .38-caliber pistol was on his hip, and bodyguards in white T-shirts and bearing rifles surrounded him.
By no means has the violence completely subsided. Broad-daylight shootouts and instances of bodies dumped on roadsides have diminished, but few are fully confident that the Knights won’t return and unleash a brutal wave of revenge killings.
Perhaps predictably, some vigilante groups have been infiltrated by criminals or corrupted and are out of control. More than 100 people have been arrested for posing as vigilantes and then carrying out the same crimes the Knights Templar committed, including extortion and kidnapping, the government says.
“The original motive for some has been lost,” said a senior Mexican military official who asked not to be identified in order to speak frankly. “They learned what power is and liked it.”
Esperanza Bejar was burying her 26-year-old son, Roberto, last week. He was kidnapped and beaten up by police over a business deal, she said, and then kidnapped and beaten by some of the more violent vigilantes. The pressure was too much, and he killed himself, she said.
Many ordinary citizens have tried to keep their heads down to survive; they now feel trapped.
“We are repressed by the government, we are repressed by the narcos, we are repressed by the federal police, we are repressed by the auto-defensas,” said Bejar, 60, a pastry and sandwich vendor, as she stood in the Apatzingan cemetery. A few yards away was the grave where her son was being eulogized while women wept.
The vigilantes “are a huge mishmash of people. Good people, less good people and the worst of people,” she said.
The funeral cortege had passed a community center where 50 to 100 vigilantes were registering their guns.
One man sat in a metal folding chair cradling an Uzi. Others walked in with aging single-bolt hunting rifles wrapped in towels. There were plenty of AK-47s, known here as chivos, or goats, for their curved ammunition clip, like the horns of the animal.
Juan Carlos Rubio, 28, turned in his semiautomatic pistol, with a mother-of-pearl handle, to the army grunts who were processing the haul. The procedure: They’d fire the gun into a green barrel containing water and Kevlar, which registers a “ballistic fingerprint.” Then the owner would also be fingerprinted, have his (or her) photo taken, and put a signature on a license-like form.
“The government is giving us the chance to register everything except bazookas and grenade-launchers,” said Cristobal Alvaro Ramirez, 33. “The idea is to use the weapons we keep as part of our self-defense, not to intimidate.”
In theory, vigilantes are supposed to keep their registered weapons tucked away at home and not to carry them in the streets. At the height of this movement, vigilantes patrolled cities and manned checkpoints on the outskirts. All that was due to end Saturday.
“We can say the registration has been a success. We didn’t expect this much attendance,” said army Lt. Col. Victor Manuel Lemarroy. “It is not a disarmament. It is only a registration of the weapons they have and then we give them back.”
In addition to rocket launchers, guns .50 caliber or higher are banned and were to be confiscated, authorities said.
Apatzingan sits in a fertile valley about 260 miles west of the capital, Mexico City, in an area known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land. It was the last in a series of major towns to be occupied by vigilantes and rid of Knights Templar, which essentially headquartered here.
The relative calm is helped by the fact that Pena Nieto’s government finally sent in military troops and federal police more than a year after he took office, and several months after the vigilante movement sprouted.
Often using intelligence from the vigilantes, authorities say they have killed or captured several important Knights Templar figures or their alleged accomplices. The former governor of the state, Jesus Reyna, along with the mayors of Apatzingan and Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico’s largest ports, have been arrested.
One of the top leaders of the Knights, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, was killed in March. The remaining leader, Servando Gomez Martinez, a.k.a. “La Tuta,” is thought to be on the run, possibly hiding in a network of caves in the Sierra Madre mountain range that bisects Michoacan.
Papa Pitufo emerged as the top leader of the vigilantes after Hipolito Mora was arrested on murder charges, and Jose Manuel Mireles, a former doctor, was ousted. After a plane crash that nearly killed Mireles, his speech became increasingly erratic. The final straw was a taped message he made to Pena Nieto, in which he used the inappropriately familiar “tu” to address the president and accused him of willfully ignoring the problems of Michoacan.
It has raised a few eyebrows that the vigilantes are not being disarmed, simply required to register. Some said that was the necessary compromise.
“If the government started disarming them, they would waste the little confidence they have gained,” said the Rev. Javier Cortes Ochoa, Roman Catholic vicar general of Apatzingan. “Then the risk is not just a setback but a full-fledged guerrilla movement.”