Doña Luz is a widowed mother and grandmother who lives a quiet life in a small rural community in the coastal mountains of Michoacán, but the peace she enjoys today didn’t come easily.
In June 2013, María de la Luz Sandoval Zambrano founded a self-defense group that stood up to one of Mexico’s most notorious criminal organizations.
Fed up with the violent crime ordered by a leader of the Caballeros Templarios gang known as “El Lico,” Doña Luz finally managed to convince many of her fellow residents in Aquila to take up arms to defend the small town after several previous attempts had failed.
“The extortion, kidnappings, looting, disappearances and murders that Federico González Medina ordered were unbearable . . .” she told the newspaper El Universal.
Complicating matters further, the town’s mayor at the time was suspected of having direct links to the cartel known in English as the Knights Templar.
But Doña Luz wasn’t deterred, claiming that she was forced to act out of a need to protect her children and the community.
“It was a necessity, but it was nice to awaken the people. It made me feel that the people had great courage and that we must conserve that courage because if something else happens again like what happened to us before, we’re going to take up arms again because we have to defend the family,” she said.
Establishing and managing a community militia didn’t come without challenges.
Not long after the group originally formed, one of the first setbacks it suffered was dealt not by its criminal adversary but the Mexican military.
At least 30 community guards were detained in the town’s main square and subsequently disarmed and transferred to a federal prison where they remained for almost four years. Finally, earlier this year a judge absolved them of the crime of illegal firearms possession and they were released.
But five other members of the self-defense force were less fortunate, Doña Luz recalled, presumably killed or kidnapped by the Caballeros Templarios.
Despite fearing that the same fate would befall one of her own family members, Doña Luz continued to use her own money to finance the group, traveled furtively to attend meetings and remained committed to her objective of protecting the community and its residents from the threats of organized crime.
Eventually, her passion and dedication to the cause paid off.
Despite the setbacks and losses, Doña Luz says that life is much calmer than it once was in the Sierra Costa and she now has more time to spend with her children, play with her six grandchildren and do more normal, everyday activities such as cooking and feeding her flock of chickens.
“We are freer here now. We work more at ease. They don’t charge us protection money, there are no kidnappings, we are more relaxed now,” she said proudly, sitting under a mango tree in her yard.
But despite her newfound peace, there is evidence that the situation remains precarious.
The Caballeros Templarios are still active in the state, according to a militia leader, and self-defense groups in the region, including Aquila’s, remain on alert.
Source: El Universal (sp)