Residents of the southern Mexican state of Michoacan have been taking up arms and combating drug cartels, but are they vigilante heroes or the face of a new, dark turn in Mexico's drug war?

Fusion’s first YouTube only video series helps answer that question. We bring you the story of how the “autodefensas," (now called the "Guardias Rurales" or "Rural Guard") began, and introduce you to two of the movement's most important leaders, as well as its some of its members, including a teenager fighter, a former childhood friend of a cartel leader and a priest who defied his own church to help take on a powerful cartel. Click on the image below to watch the interactive video:

The autodefensas debate in Mexico - what do they represent?

Early last year, residents and business owners in Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero banded together to form self-defense groups, or "autodefensas," to take on the notoriously brutal and powerful Knights Templar cartel. They said they were driven to action because they were fed up with the murders, rapes and extortion that were part of everyday life for areas under the control of cartels.


It was hard not to be sympathetic to their cause, and some saw the militia groups as part of a new social movement. Mexico, after all, had a history of community policing, and some of the areas where autodefensas first started were indigenous communities with a tradition of self-determination. "Today is the time of citizen self-rule, and in this perspective, the autodefensas of Michoacan, heroic and dignified, represent a fresh and hopeful alternative and that should be recognized and supported," reads one of the many pro-autodefensa op-eds in the left-leaning Mexican newspaper La Jornada.

Yet others saw the militias as setting a dangerous precedent that only further undermined the rule of law, and set Mexico on a path toward a civil conflict not unlike what unfolded in Colombia in recent decades. There, paramilitary groups created to combat leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers ended up being becoming responsible for some of the worst atrocities of that country’s decades-long civil war. "The autodefensas are a cancer,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, in January. “It's very easy to create this type of model where a Frankenstein forms that later no government controls.”

As the militia movement has spread to other states along the coast and further north, it's become clear that whatever you thought of the autodefensas, they represented an important new chapter in Mexico's drug war. "For better or worse, the autodefensas are one of the most important movements that have arisen in Mexico over the last decade," British journalist and narco expert Ioan Grillo recently wrote in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres.


On May 10, the autodefensas were recognized by the Mexican government, officially becoming an auxiliary police force or "Rural Guard," even as reports surfaced linking some members to the creation of a new cartel.

So are they vigilantes or a dangerous outgrowth of the drug war? Watch the videos and decide for yourself.

Born and raised in Spain, Lara is a digital producer and writer for Fusion — covering stories in culture and technology as well as in-depth environmental issues across the globe.