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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

To Mexico now where there's tense calm in the western state of Michoacan. It's been the site of fighting between civilian militias and drug traffickers with federal forces trying to regain control. At the moment, businesses are slowly reopening. The Militias who took up arms have put down their weapons and children are supposed to go back to school on Monday. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: About 20 men stand guard at the main intersection on the road into the Michoacan town of Nueva Italia. Some are young, some are old. A few have T-shirts on identifying them as the civilian militia or self-defense patrols as they call themselves. There are no arms in sight except one young man carries a pistol strapped to his belt.

And all say they've had run-ins with the Knights Templar. That's the drug cartel that rules this region known for it's limes, avocados and tempestuous residents with the reputation for rebellion.

JOEL GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Nineteen-year-old Joel Gutierrez says residents here are sick of the cartel's kidnapping, murdering and stealing from everyone.

That's why we took up arms, he says. The local and state police did nothing to protect us. And he should know. Gutierrez says last summer he was at a neighbor's house when he heard Knights Templar cartel members screech up their dirt road in several cars.

GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

NEARY: He took off running. He says the gang took his parents, his grandparents and three cousins.

KAHN: They haven't been heard from since. Another man at the checkpoint says he was held with his two brothers until his family paid a ransom, and nearly everyone talks about having to pay quotas or taxes or being forced to sell their crops to the drug cartel at below market prices.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: The militiamen have been patrolling their towns and inspecting cars at checkpoints like this one for nearly a year. All that time, federal police did little to stop them and at times seemed to encourage the movement. However, that tacit approval appeared to end last weekend. That's when the number of the militia's mushroomed and surrounded Apatzingan, a town of 100,000 people and the Knights Templar's stronghold.

A major battle between the militias and the cartel seemed imminent. The federal government sent in thousands of police and troops to disarm the civilian patrols. A deadly confrontation ensued. Federal soldiers fired into a crowd of civilian militia supporters, killing two. Militia leader, Estanislao Beltran says the government should have gone after the real criminals, the Knights Templar and not those trying to defend themselves.

ESTANISLAO BELTRAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says we are sick and tired of cartels here in Michoacan and vehemently denies rumors that he takes funds from a rival group. The cartels have been terrorizing us for more than a decade. He says, why would we side with any of them? In fact, the Knights Templar is just the latest group to control the meth and marijuana trade here. A break-off of the previous Familia Michoacan cartel, the Knights Templar are known for their quasi-religious preachings and ruthless violence which quickly expanded beyond drug trafficking and into extortion and kidnapping. Beltran says for now his militia is willing to store their weapons.

BELTRAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: We would like to give the federal police the chance to show us they can control this problem but, he says, short of arresting the cartel leaders and their lieutenants, his group will not retreat. Since the killing of the two civilians, the federal forces have backed away from their plan to disarm the militias. The escalating violence in Michoacan has become the biggest security problem for President Enrique Pena Nieto who's tried to downplay the drug wars since coming into office 13 months ago. This week, the government appointed a trusted Pena Nieto ally to coordinate security and development in Michoacan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: But for now, dozens of checkpoints manned by the civilian's militia remain in the region. Heavily armed federal police watch nearby in pickup trucks. The militia no longer carries their riffles or assault weapons on plain sight, but they say their arms are close by if the Knights Templar come back.

GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: For Joel Gutierrez, whose whole family was killed, he says he's in the fight for the long run. He says we have to stop the Knights Templar for the kids that still live here. Hopefully, we can bring back the peace and stop the injustice, he says. If not, this insanity will never end. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Michoacan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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