In the western Mexican state of Michoacan, civilian militias have challenged a powerful drug cartel known as the Knights Templar. The vigilante uprising, which spurred the Mexican government to send soldiers and police to help counter the cartel, was fueled by migrants who returned to Mexico after years living north of the border.
Reny Pineda, who was raised in Los Angeles, is one of those migrants. When he returned to his homeland in Mexico, he found a new life fighting drug lords.
Today, Pineda's life revolves around the vast lemon groves that perfume the fertile lowlands of Michoacan. It's a region known as Tierra Caliente: the hot lands.
At a farm near his home, about 20 miles from the town of Apatzingan, Pineda points out which lemons are best to pick. "This is what we do," he says. "This is our money right here."
Pineda is 41, with dark curly hair and a soft, dimpled smile. He was born in Michoacan, but left Mexico as a young boy when his family headed north to California. He grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from high school there. He remembers those years as good ones, despite the challenges.
"I had good grades, actually," Pineda says. "A couple of college[s], they offered financial aid, but I was illegal." He didn't have his papers, so he couldn't get a degree.
Four years ago, Pineda's life changed forever. Caught up in a drug trafficking case in Los Angeles, he fled the U.S. and returned to Mexico, leaving his wife and four kids back in California. When he arrived in Michoacan, he found the place of his childhood was no more.
"Before, when I was a little kid, you could go anywhere," Pineda says. "And when I came back, it was, like, totally different."
The Rise Of Civilian Militias
Pineda returned to a region overrun by violence. The Knights Templar, a drug cartel that controlled heroin and methamphetamine production, had expanded into a ruthless extortion and kidnapping ring. The cartel terrorized local communities, squeezing money from shops, ranches and farms.
"They demanded money from the owners of the land," Pineda says. "You have 10 acres, you're going to have to pay, let's say, $100 for each acre a month."
It's like a tax. And if you don't pay? "They'll take away the land or they'll kill you," Pineda says. "That's it, that simple. That's what they did."
Cartel members also raped women and young girls and killed hundreds of people. Five of Pineda's friends simply disappeared.
"It was terrible," Pineda says. "It was really hard."
People had nowhere to turn for help; he says the police were often working for the drug cartel. So last year, Pineda and some of his relatives joined a civilian militia created by farmers and ranchers.
These vigilantes fought the cartels in places where the state had long failed to stop the drug trafficking and violence. Fueling the uprising were migrants, like Pineda, who had returned to Mexico after living for years in the United States.
Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexican-American security analyst, says these migrants learned to trust civic institutions when they lived in the U.S. — which made the conditions they found when they returned all the more shocking.
"They come back to Michoacan, and they find this complete warlike situation," Salazar says. "People are getting killed, people are being disappeared, women are being raped, children are forced to work for some of these drug organizations. It's surprising these self-defense movements didn't pop up sooner."
Using whatever weapons and vehicles they could find, the civilian militias patrolled territory for hideouts, hunted down cartel leaders and challenged cartel members in wild shootouts.
"When you get involved in a battle ... you get scared, but at the same time the adrenaline is pumping," Pineda says. "And you get excited. I mean, that's what happens with me."
An Unlikely Hero
Chucho Mendoza, part of Pineda's large extended family living in California and a community organizer in Fresno, says Pineda wasn't a born militiaman. "It's not in my uncle's nature to fight," Mendoza says.
"It's interesting to see how much fight the town, the people have when people honestly believe in themselves," he says. "And so seeing our uncle Reny, just like other uncles and cousins, it's something that motivated us to contribute in whatever way we can."
Mendoza says his uncle has been an inspiration for the rest of the family. But he's an unlikely hero. Taking on the cartel was the last thing on Pineda's mind when he returned to Mexico. He had become tangled in a meth trafficking case in Los Angeles, and instead of facing possible prison time, he fled across the border. His wife and kids stayed behind in California.
"I regret what I did, but I can't change the past. I wish I could, but I can't," Pineda says. "So now that's my punishment. And I have to live with it."
When he's on patrol, Pineda is constantly reminded of the gulf between the family life he knew in Los Angeles and his new world in Michoacan.
Recently, he came upon a remote farm where, months earlier, the cartel had executed an entire family, including a baby. The victims were shot and buried in a mass grave.
"I'm right here at the spot where they found the bodies ... 16 bodies," Pineda says. "You see where they actually dug out the bodies. They kill for nothing. They could do it to me. They could do it to anybody."
'Free Of These Bad People'
A year and a half of fighting has weakened the cartel's grip. More than 30 municipalities are now under the control of the militias and federal authorities.
The militia's success prompted celebrations this spring that would have been unimaginable even six months ago. At a party in the town of Buena Vista, Pineda — a beer in his hand and a pistol strapped to his belt — was exuberant.
"I'm happy to see these people gathering right here, at the plaza, because they're free," Pineda says. "They're free of organized crime. They're free of these bad people. We're the good people, and we're doing it — we're fighting — for them."
Since then, the Mexican government has ordered the militias to disband or become part of a new rural police force. There are tensions, and some vigilantes have been arrested. Still, with the security situation improving, some of Pineda's relatives who fought alongside him are returning to California.
He can't do that because of his legal problems, so he's working at the lemon grove picking fruit.
"You see the tools, the shovels over there," Pineda says. "This is what we want. We want to work our terrenos, our tierras — our land."
He says he's happy to be working again.
"We're reborn," he says. "We're reborn. And this is what we do, work."
Pineda says he can earn almost $50 a day picking lemons — and, for now, none of that money is going to the drug cartel.
Ana Arana contributed to this report.