The beer-bellied man eating beef stew and tortillas in an empty warehouse claims that when he was 18 years old he wanted to be an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Today, 14 years later, he commands a unit of eight hitmen for the Caballeros Templarios, or Knights Templar, drug cartel in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
"Sometimes I ask myself if it was all worth it," he says of the war he has fought with other cartels, and former members of his own group who joined government-supported vigilante groups. "We should have just hidden the guns right away and fled. Fighting was pointless and many of my comrades would still be alive today."
An older and heavier fighter, who is putting away goat meat stew in the shade of a mango tree in a different part of the same region, was once also a Templario. Now he commands a group of former cartel members who claim to have left criminality behind, though they scoff at the idea that they might put down their weapons.
"If I don't carry a gun the bad guys will kill me," the vigilante leader says.
The stories of these two former allies and now enemies — who we will call Luis and Pancho and who both describe themselves as trapped in a cycle of killing — help explain why Michoacán remains among Mexico's most combustible regions nearly a decade into the country's drug wars that have killed well over 100,000 people.
The violence took off after Felipe Calderón launched a military-led crackdown on the country's cartels immediately after he became president in December 2006. He began it in the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, region of his home state of Michoacán.
Calderón's successor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, did little to modify the force-focused strategy when he took office in 2012. His government now claims it has both crushed the Templarios and brought under control the vigilantes that sprung up to fight the cartel.
The story on the ground in the Tierra Caliente is very different. The region is not only suffering the scars of the violence of recent years but is also now home to at least 13 armed groups — most of them dominated by Templarios and former Templarios. The question for many is when, not if, the violence will escalate again.
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Violence between rival armed groups is still a constant in the region, though within the city of Apatzingán, its main hub, the heavy deployment of federal forces means armed groups keep a low profile and bodies tend only to be discovered when dawn breaks.
This changes a few minutes drive beyond the city's limits as the landscape transforms from flowing hills into a rugged and steep mountain range where locals have cultivated marijuana for as long as anybody can remember, and 'kitchens' pump out crystal meth for more contemporary US tastes.
Luis' stronghold lies 25 miles outside Apatzingán, but getting there requires first crossing the territory of a rival group marked, inevitably, by the sudden appearance of punteros — youngsters employed to report anything suspicious up the chain via two-way radios.
'We should have just hidden the guns right away and fled. Fighting was pointless and many of my comrades would still be alive today'
The fiefdom of this particular group ends at a river and a crumbling concrete bridge known by locals as 'the border.'
From there the road's tarmac gives way to light-brown dirt, carved with deep furrows that challenge even the most skillful drivers. It meanders through low bushland that the relentless Tierra Caliente sun has scorched near colorless, with the monotony only broken by a sparse population of tall cacti.
Key episodes in the Tierra Caliente's multiple conflicts have left their mark in this part of the region, such as the apricot-colored shrine occupying the lower part of a small hill and looking a little like a crashed spaceship.
The shrine was built to commemorate the spot where bullets fired from a police Black Hawk helicopter in December 2010 killed Nazario Moreno González, also known as El Más Loco or The Craziest One. Or so the government said.
El Más Loco's cross and shrine, a memorial to his first death. (Photo by Falko Ernst/VICE News)
Moreno became famous as the cult-like head of the Familia Michoacana cartel that emerged in the Tierra Caliente in the early 2000s and proved strong enough to wrest control of the region from its erstwhile bosses, the notorious Zetas. The Familia dominated everything from crystal meth and avocado production, to community conflict resolution. It claimed religious inspiration, at the same time as committing countless murders, and running wide-scale extortion rackets. Some accused cartel members of ritually consuming their enemies' hearts.
President Calderón celebrated taking down Moreno as a great victory within his campaign against organized crime, but there was a problem — the capo was still alive.
While officially dead, Moreno forged his own legend as "Saint Nazario" — penning a prayer for himself in which he was described as a "defender of the sick." He also set up up a new cartel called the Caballeros Templarios.
The Templarios took up where the Familia left off, but they hit a new obstacle in the civilian vigilante groups that sprung up around the region in 2013 and later allied with the government in joint operations aimed at ending the cartel's reign.
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Locals tell of a 50-vehicle strong convoy of state and non-state forces sweeping the area for Templarios in early 2014. They trashed Moreno's shrine as they went, which is why it is now riddled with bullets, with shattered glass and dirt covering the floor. The narco-saint's golden statue is also long gone.
Moreno was finally killed again, in March 2014, this time apparently for good. When government forces arrested his second-in-command, Servando Gómez Martínez or La Tuta, in March 2015, they proclaimed they had finally eliminated the Templarios for good.
But the Templario gunmen — under Luis' charge and based in a 20-shack village at the end of the road — tell a different story as they hang out at a 60th birthday party drinking cold beer and listening to a live band.
They certainly don't look like ghosts as they show off their AK-47s with mounted grenade launchers and .50mm Barrett sniper rifles. They rattle off technical details about the weight (82 pounds), the range (1.8 miles), and the cost per magazine of 19 rounds ($1,042), which is almost triple a hitman's monthly salary.
A hitman cleans a .50mm barrett sniper rifle. (Photo by Falko Ernst/VICE News)
Luis observes his gunmen and chats about his years as a student at a Bay Area high school, when he dreamt of taking down narcos as a DEA agent. He says it came crashing down when his brother got busted for running a crystal meth operation and Luis spent four years in prison, even though he claims he was never involved, before getting deported to Mexico in 2006.
He joined the Familia and then followed El Mas Loco into the Templarios with whom he remained loyal when things got tough. He bemoans the "treachery" of those who joined the vigilantes and transformed into enemies, or contras, overnight. He remembers the bitter war they fought before he was ordered to lay low in mid 2014.
'I know who they are, I know where they are. This will be sorted when the time comes'
The gunman says he headed for the state capital Morelia where he lived largely undisturbed alongside his wife and two small children, aside from when his path crossed with other Templarios gone underground.
"With so many turncoats, you didn't know what was what anymore," he says, recalling the time that one came to his house, beat his wife and scared his kids, but didn't find him. "That's ok. I know who they are, I know where they are. This will be sorted when the time comes."
Luis says he eventually emerged from clandestine life and established his new Templario unit in its current spot in January this year. He insists that all is calm, though calm does not preclude snipers stationed in the surrounding hills 24/7 watching for incursions from other armed groups.
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One is the group on the other side of the river between Luis' stronghold and the city of Apatzingán. Another group of enemies is based behind the tall hills that surround the village.
This is why the crew sleeps in a roaming camp just outside the village. It also explains why they grab their gear and get ready to move out of the warehouse as soon as Luis' two-way radio spits out a report about shots being fired in a near-by community.
Such skirmishes do not compare to the all-out offensives that reached a peak when the Familia split and the Templarios were formed in 2010, or when the vigilantes initially took on the Templarios in 2013 and 2014.
But the killings are a constant, if underreported, challenge to the government's claim that the Tierra Caliente has now left the violence behind. A constant reminder, too, that the lines between cartel members, former members, and vigilantes are almost always blurred.
Pancho's case epitomizes how thin the division can be between good guys and bad guys, and between self-declared freedom fighters and narcos.
'If I don't carry a gun the bad guys will kill me'
He says he left the Templarios because he grew fed up with the strangling authoritarianism of the cartel's leaders. He says he joined the vigilante movement when it started to look strong enough to take on the cartel.
In theory Pancho and the vigilantes won. And, after kicking the Templarios out, were partly integrated into state law enforcement by way of a new force known as the Rural Police which was, again in theory, demobilized completely in May.
Kalshinkovs are a popular choice for those fightings in the battles of Michoacán. (Photo by Falko Ernst/VICE News)
There is nothing demobilized about the hefty ex-Templario and the vigilante group he runs from a base about 15 miles from Apatzingán, in a different direction from Luis' stronghold.
Putting down their weapons, Pancho says, would be impossible because the Templarios are hell-bent on going back to the days when big money flowed from protection rackets imposed upon the area's lucrative agricultural enterprises. He claims some of these businesses are already receiving threats.
"They've got their lists of who paid how much before," he says. "It's a shitload of money."
Pancho also says that the state's reluctance to take decisive action against the reconstituted Templarios means that the region is likely to explode again.
Just three months ago, he claims, the Templarios might have overrun his area for good, had he not received a heads-up from a military commander, though he was told to expect no assistance from government forces.
Related: Mexican Authorities Say They Don't Exist: Meet the Vigilantes Standing Up to the Zetas
Pancho says he activated the group's emergency protocol created to handle such situations, which meant 150 SUVs at his command moved out and his men took up their positions, ready to intercept the invaders. He claims the show of force persuaded the hostile Templario convoy to think again. It turned back without a shot being fired.
The threat from his erstwhile brothers in arms in the Templarios has gotten worse, the vigilante leader says, thanks to their alliance with a group called the Viagras.
The Viagras are an independent criminal group that has tended to ally with whichever is the main criminal protagonist in the Tierra Caliente — the Zetas, the Familia, and then the Templarios. In the interim they also became the federal government's main anti-Templario hunting squad, though the pact appears to have broken down and the Viagras returned to an alliance with the Templarios.
But though the narco-turned-vigilante complains that he cannot count on the Federal Police and the Military to support his battle to keep the Templarios and the Viagras at bay, he does credit them with knowing 'who's good and who's bad.'
This, he explains, includes giving his group a green light to hire out squads of 10 armed men to protect agricultural firms in the name of ensuring that the past cannot return.
But it is also the creation of a kind of private army with 350 members that inhabits a gray zone of illegality, unaccountability, and privatized violence. And it also unmasks the fiction that Michoacán is on track to reestablishing the rule of law.
Pancho insists that his group has no intention of trying to replace the state, let alone shoot at police or soldiers.
'With one patrol car and four cops you'll protect me, my people, my house, my wife? You can't'
Yet other sources place him and his group right in the center of the unabated armed struggle over territory and drugs shipment routes seen in the steady trickle of murders and the periodic appearance of mutilated bodies.
Whatever his role in the current game in which the different armed groups in Michoacán probe each other's weaknesses, and those of the state's forces, Pancho keeps a resolutely unruffled tone throughout the interview. That is until he turns to Michoacán's state governor Silvano Aureoles Conejo's plans to disarm self-proclaimed vigilantes like him.
"That man doesn't give a fuck," he says of the governor's plan. "With one patrol car and four cops you'll protect me, my people, my house, my wife? You can't."
Gunmen, said to belong to the Viagras, murdered one of Pancho's cousins as he pulled out of a gas station two days after making this comment. That cousin was the vigilante's third relative killed this year.
Related: Michoacan, the Birthplace of Mexico's Drug War, Is Still a Violent Quagmire
Follow Falko Ernst on Twitter: @falko_ernst