Spectacular landscapes, abundant natural resources and agriculture, and drug kingpins who cook up religions to help justify slaughtering their rivals.
The state of Michoacan in western Mexico is both the home of the recognized Morelia Film Festival and the monarch butterfly reserve, but also one of the largest producers and exporters of methamphetamine to the United States.
The state is also known as the birthplace of the Mexican drug war, which — now in its ninth year — has arguably become an international example of policy failure, as drugs continue to flow north to the United States.
Michoacan is a key state for understanding the drug trade in Mexico, and plays an important role as home to the Lazaro Cardenas port, Mexico's most important, and a strategic transfer point for drug trafficking.
As a result of the violence linked to drugs, Michoacan in recent years became a leading platform for Mexico's modern civilian militia movement, known locally as the autodefensas. These groups rose up in arms against Michoacan's drug gangs, but are now accused of behaving in some ways like organized crime.
To help readers understand the ongoing violence in Michoacan, here are the most important events that have marked the state since the start of the drug war, highlighting some of the key players in the power struggle between organized crime, the government, and the people.
The 2006 presidential election that brought Felipe Calderon to power was decided by less than one percent of the vote, in a final tally that his chief rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador never recognized. (Photo by Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
On September 6, a drug cartel calling itself La Familia Michoacana makes its presence known when a group of armed men barge into a busy nightclub in Uruapan, bowling five human heads onto a dance floor. With the heads comes a message written on cardboard, calling their rule "divine justice."
"The Family doesn't kill over payment, doesn't kill women, doesn't kill innocents," the note says. "Whoever needs to die, dies."
These public displays of brutality become a trademark of the cartel, and help put the issue in the public eye.
President Vicente Fox enters his final two months in power in September. His 2000 election as candidate for the market-friendly, socially conservative National Action Party, or PAN, ended more than 70 years of single-party rule in Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
On December 1, Felipe Calderon, whose father co-founded the PAN, becomes the second PAN president to take office after a contentious vote that was called "fraud" by leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his supporters. Less than two weeks into his term, on December 11, Calderon launches the country's militarized war on drug cartels by sending more than 7,000 soldiers to quell rising violence in his home state, Michoacan.
The "war," as he dubbed it in public statements early on, has not ended and has killed an estimated 100,000 people in all of Mexico.
Cartel operations expand in the state, and local elections are held on November 11 to determine who will run the municipalities of Michoacan.
Days later, members of La Familia call a meeting with 14 of the state's newly elected mayors, to demand payment for funds the cartel injected into the politicians' campaigns. Supporting local politicians guarantees four years of official protection for the cartel in cities across Michoacan.
The attack on the Morelia plaza on September 15, 2008, left eight people dead. (Archive photo via AP)
Leonel Godoy, a politician with the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, assumes the governor's office in February.
Members of the cartel warn authorities half a dozen times in the first two weeks of September that there will be an attack on Mexican Independence Day, according to records. The public is not informed, and authorities seemingly take no action.
On September 15, during public celebrations for the national holiday, members of La Familia launch grenades into the crowded square of the capital of Morelia, killing eight people and injuring more than one hundred.
As collusion among drug trade organizations and politicians in Michoacan becomes increasingly evident, federal authorities swoop in, arresting ten mayors and 18 other officials, including a judge, for alleged ties to organized crime.
The bust, which occurred in May, is considered the largest of the Calderon administration. But the effort eventually proves to be an embarrassment for the president and his attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora. All but one of the government suspects are later released for lack of evidence.
July 5: Governor Godoy's half-brother, Julio Cesar Godoy, is elected to Mexico's Congress. Before he had a chance to be sworn in, the government orders his arrest for alleged ties to La Familia. Julio Cesar Godoy momentarily becomes a fugitive.
July 13: Twelve federal police officers are found dead, their corpses stacked along the side of a Michoacan highway with a warning message from La Familia. Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, a high-ranking leader in La Familia, is believed to have ordered the killings.
Despite the government's allegations that he kept links to La Familia, Julio Cesar Godoy, half-brother of Governor Loenel Godoy, is sworn in as a congressman on September 23, 2010. (Photo by Fernando Castillo/AP)
September 23: Despite the charges against him, Julio Cesar Godoy reportedly walked into the national Chamber of Deputies building unnoticed, and despite being a fugitive accused of having links to La Familia, is sworn in to Congress. A judge in November grants Julio Cesar Godoy an injunction, or amparo, against the warrant for his arrest.
December 9: President Calderon confirms the death of La Familia founder and chief Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno Gonzalez — also known as "The Craziest One" — in a party shootout along with other members of the cartel. His death would later be disproved, but it marks the end of an era for La Familia.
December 14: Julio Cesar Godoy makes history, as the first Mexican legislator to be impeached and lose immunity because of criminal ties. Godoy, once again a wanted man, disappears and has not reappeared publicly.
La Familia has by now split from the Zetas cartel in eastern Mexico, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, ending an alliance aimed at increased expansion in Mexico for both groups. This sparks a criminal war over control of Michoacan's lucrative meth and agricultural markets.
March 8: Two former chiefs inside La Familia, "La Tuta" and Enrique "El Kike" Plancarte, announce they are splitting from the cartel and forming Los Caballeros Templarios, or the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar place narco-banners throughout Michoacan, declaring that they will be performing all of the "altruistic activities that were previously done by the Familia Michoacana."
Claiming to be a cartel for the people, the Knights Templar expect all members to follow a pseudo-religious code, which includes the maxim: "The Knights Templar will face an ideological battle that will challenge us to defend the values that sustain a society based on ethics."
The new group is launched on the birthday of "El Chayo," whom the public believes to be dead.
December 1: Enrique Peña Nieto assumes the presidency of Mexico, marking the end of 12 years under PAN rule, and a return to the party that had been dominant for the seven decades before that, the PRI.
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A militia member rides along a dirt highway in Michoacan, in July 2013. (Photo by Brett Gundlock/VICE Mexico)
February 24: The Knights Templar are fully active and have seized criminal operations in much of the state, broadening their activities to include widespread extortion of farmers, mining companies, and activity at the Lazaro Cardenas port.
In response to the increasing severity of their violence, and the lack of action from authorities, Michoacan's first self-defense militias are born in the communities of La Ruana, Tepalcatepec, and Buenavista.
Three men soon become public figures for their role in organizing the first civilian militias to defend themselves against the Knights Templar: a lime grower named Hipólito Mora, a doctor named Jose Manuel Mireles, and a farmer named Estanislao Beltran, more often referred to as "Papá Pitufo," or Papa Smurf.
October 29: Jesus Murillo Karam, then the attorney general, travels from Mexico City to meet with autodefensa leaders in Michoacan, after a week of violence leaves at least 32 people dead. "The attorney general came with two generals to speak to me," Dr. Mireles said a week after the visit. "He said, 'We came to help you. What do want us to do?'"
Karam at the time attributes the state's spike in violence to a delayed effect of the government's efforts to return safety to the region. "You can now drive down the streets of Michoacan," Murillo Karam said proudly after his visit, declaring that his office had "saved" the state.
A militia member salutes triumphantly with his weapon after the takeover of the town of Churumuco in December 2013. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)
January 4: Autodefensa leader Jose Manuel Mireles is injured in a plane crash and transferred to a hospital in Mexico City. Shortly after his return to Michoacan, his once cooperative relationship with the authorities begins to disintegrate.
January 13: Under increasingly government pressure on the autodefensas to disarm, Dr. Mireles, who initially agreed to look for alternatives to carrying weapons, back-tracks, releasing a video saying he will not disarm, and asking that his people do the same.
'We prefer to die at the hands of the government than at the hands of a goddamned son of a bitch who dismembers and butchers you.'
January 15: President Peña Nieto responds to the crisis in Michoacan, appointing a political ally, Alfredo Castillo, as the state's new security commissioner. This appointment makes Castillo the de facto governor, removing authority from interim governor Reyna Garcia.
January 27: The Mexican government and the autodefensas sign an agreement, allowing the militias to keep their weapons with permits, making them a community police force. VICE News traveled to Michoacan to meet the militia leaders and observe their transition to an officially sanctioned community police force.
March 9: Already thought to be dead, Nazario "Chayo" Moreno is finally killed in a shootout with the Mexican army in Apatzingán. He dies one day after his 44th birthday.
A dispute over the absolute control of security in Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Land region, begins between the autodefensas led by Hipólito Mora, and a rival group led by Luis Antonio Torres, known as "El Americano," because he had lived in the United States.
Another self-described militia calling itself "Los Viagras" also begins to emerge, but its lines of allegiance to other militias or to criminal gangs remain murky.
Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles with his weapon nearby, December 2013. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik)
March 30: Enrique Plancarte, another founding Templar leader, is killed in a gun battle with Mexican marines in the state of Queretaro. Following the deaths of "Chayo" and Plancarte, "La Tuta" is the only founding former La Familia leader left alive.
April 3: The Mexican government announces it will disarm Michoacan's autodefensas, despite the earlier agreement allowing them to keep their weapons. The vigilantes respond, saying they will comply only when authorities can guarantee meaningful action, and only if the Knights Templar fall.
"We prefer to die at the hands of the government than at the hands of a goddamned son of a bitch who dismembers and butchers you — without releasing even a fingernail to your family," Dr. Mireles tells VICE News at the time.
April 4: Former interim governor Jesus Reyna Garcia is arrested, accused of having links ties to organized crime. He allegedly protected "La Tuta," after old recordings surface that show the politician held meetings with the cartel boss and fallen leader Nazario "El Chayo" Moreno.
May 10: Several hundred autodefensas in the town of Tepalcatepec receive uniforms and registered weapons, in a new government agreement to formalize the self-defense movement by creating a rural police force.
"Our goal is to create peace and tranquility within our communities, to bring peace to our families," spokesman for the Michoacan autodefensas council Estanislao Beltran, or "Papa Smurf," tells VICE News during the registration process. "With this movement we are heroes."
Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik.
June 19: At the end of his 90-day leave, Michoacan governor Fausto Vallejo resigns.
He had been dogged by allegations of links to organized crime since almost the start of his term in 2012, but he says he is leaving the post due to health problems. Days before, photos had began circulating online, allegedly showing Vallejo's son, Rodrigo Vallejo Mora, in a meeting with the last founding member of the Knights Templar cartel, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez.
June 27: Prominent autodefensa leader Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles is arrested in a federal sweep, along with 82 other dissident militia members in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan who refused to join the sanctioned rural police force.
Mireles and his bodyguards are found in possession of more than a dozen firearms, ammunition, narcotics, and the equivalent of a few thousand dollars in cash, authorities said. But Mireles's defense attorney, Talia Vazquez, tells VICE News that the drugs and weapons had been planted.
"Since they are unable to arrest the Templarios, it's better to arrest Mireles," Vazquez said at the time. "The autodefensas are not the root of the problem. They are the solution that the people gave to the problem."
December 16: The group led by Hipólito Mora, and a feuding group led by longtime rival "El Americano," engage in a violent shootout that lasts more than two hours, killing 11 members on both sides, including Mora's 32-year-old son, Manuel.
December 27: Mora is arrested after he and his men turn themselves in to authorities for their role in the gun battle.
January 6: Another major clash is registered, this time between federal forces and members of a civilian militia in the city of Apatzingán.
Witnesses at the scene report that some of those present attempted to surrender before being fatally shot. Graphic photos showing a group of victims piled up and embracing one another — suggesting an intentional massacre — begin to circulate online.
Raw footage of the confrontation in Apatzingán, Michoacan.
January 22: Alfredo Castillo, the man in charge of restoring peace in Michoacan, is removed from his post, one year and eight days after taking state control. Castillo, who faced constant criticism for his lack of strategy and his handling of self-defense groups, leaves behind no clear resolutions for the violence.
February 27: The last remaining founding member of the Knights Templar cartel finally meets justice. Servando Gomez Martinez, "La Tuta," is arrested while eating hot dogs in Morelia at around 3 am.
Authorities said it was a "clean job," and that no shots were fired.
March 4: Jose Luis Corro Chavez, a navy rear admiral and captain of the port of Lazaro Cardenas, is shot and killed outside his home. Since 2013, Corro had worked to reclaim control of the Lazaro Cardenas port, a strategic point of operations of the Knights Templar cartel.
Authorities deny any relation between his assassination and La Tuta's capture.
March 9: More than two months since his arrest, Hipólito Mora is released from prison, along with 26 people from his group. A judge determines that his men, and those following his rival "El Americano," had acted in self-defense during the violent battle that killed almost a dozen people.
March 10: Rival militia leader "El Americano" is released from prison, leading Mora and his supporters to predict more violence if the two bands confront one another again.
The situation in Michoacan continues to evolve, and it is not yet clear how — or if — the arrest of the final founding member of the Knights Templar will affect crime and violence in the state.
Elections will be held in Michoacan on June 7. Hipólito Mora, after his release, said he may seek a seat in Mexico's Congress, running with a small opposition party.
Check back for updates on this developing story. Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk.
Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report.