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BUENAVISTA TOMATLÁN, Mexico — A certain calm has returned to once-lawless Michoacán state. Murder rates have fallen, some gangsters have fled to the hills, and federal forces have captured or killed three of the top leaders of the feared Knights Templar drug cartel.

State and federal leaders are trumpeting their success.

“The situation in the state has come under control,” declared Alfredo Castillo, the troubleshooter whom President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed a little more than four months ago to direct efforts to bring rule of law to troubled Michoacán.

But wander along the back roads of Michoacán state and it’s hard to find residents who believe that a decadelong nightmare of criminal mayhem is over. Some say the Peña Nieto government has taken short-term measures to reduce violence without any effort to punish perpetrators. Others say gangsters have already begun to reorganize, even adopting a new name for their group.

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“Who knows if they will return. That’s the million-dollar question,” said Andres Montelongo, a hardware store owner in Buenavista Tomatlán, a town in western Michoacán where crime-related violence had reached a height.

When federal authorities assumed control of Michoacán on Jan. 13, their goal was to quell rampant violence by the Knights Templar, a criminal gang deeply involved in the global methamphetamine and cocaine trade that had infiltrated the highest reaches of the state and local political and business communities. They also wanted to rein in an uprising by thousands of armed vigilantes who had ousted crooked mayors and local police in dozens of towns.

Since then, federal forces have chalked up a series of successes, including arresting four mayors and the state’s former acting governor for links to the cartel. The cartel itself appears to have disintegrated, with only its top leader, Servando Gomez, escaping arrest. In April, authorities reported he was hiding in caves.

What vexes many, however, is that hundreds of gangsters who initially fled to the hills have returned to towns to join the vigilante groups, saying they’d had a change of heart and now despise the Knights Templar.

“Many of them switched sides. That is to say, according to them, they repented and converted,” said the Rev. Adrian Alejandrez, a priest in Apatzingán, a former stronghold of the drug cartel. “We have doubts about this because you don’t just change from one day to the next.”

Vigilantes targeted

The Peña Nieto government has worked as hard to defang and sow discord among the loosely organized vigilante groups — whose popularity underscored the inability of the state to restore order — as it has sought to quell organized crime.

To co-opt the bulk of the vigilantes, who also call themselves self-defense forces, Castillo agreed with some leaders a month ago to give them uniforms and new weapons and to provide them jobs as members of a new rural police corps, with essentially no training or probes into their backgrounds.

On May 10, Castillo inducted the first contingent of 450 vigilantes into the new rural militia. Hundreds more were to be inducted shortly. The same day, he acknowledged that federal forces had arrested 155 presumed former Knights Templar members who had sought to join the vigilante groups.

At a temporary base in the town of Tepalcatepec, where the first rural militia took up posts, Cmdr. Arnulfo Valencia showed off his 9 mm Beretta pistol and said he’d been given an AR-15 assault rifle as well. He pulled out a white card labeled “List of Rights” that would tell him what to read to those detained by corpsmen.

Valencia maintained that none of the 120 former vigilantes in the town’s rural corps had ever worked for the drug cartel.

Even as rank-and-file vigilantes find jobs, some of the founders of the movement fear that the government is after them. Authorities jailed one, Hipolito Mora, a 58-year-old lemon grower, for just over two months, on suspicion of ordering two murders. He was released May 16 after the government couldn’t provide prosecutors with evidence.

Another leader, perhaps the most widely known, Jose Manuel Mireles, a charismatic physician with a shock of white hair, lashed out in an interview at what he said was a federal attempt to divide the vigilante movement with little regard for letting former gangsters into the new rural police corps.

“The federal campaign is a failure,” Mireles said. “It is just theater. … There are many townships that continue to be invaded by the Templars.”

Castillo, he said, “is not doing things as they should be done. Look at how he’s given credentials, permits, uniforms, weapons and vehicles to the Templars. … This is not good.”

Gangs, drugs go on

Another priest, the Rev. Jose Luis Segura in the town of La Ruana, said that while the Templars had splintered, former members were creating a new crime gang.

“All the fragments are reorganizing, and that’s how the new cartel was formed. It’s called H3,” Segura said. “That’s the name they put on their trucks: H3.”

That name is said either to be taken from the favored vehicle of one of the group’s leaders, a Hummer H3, or to signify Third Fraternity, the heir to a line of crime groups that began with La Familia Michoacana, which reigned in the state in the last decade, and its successor, the Knights Templar.

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