In the suburbs of California, small groups of Mexican immigrants are holding meetings to raise funds for vigilante groups in their home country.
The money trickles in slowly in $20 bills that construction workers take out of their pockets and place in cardboard boxes. Representatives of community groups bring in larger sums of money in checks, and encourage people to deposit funds directly into the bank accounts of vigilante leaders in Mexico.
Organizers say that the money collected at these meetings goes straight to vigilante groups who are fighting against the Knights Templar Cartel in Michoacan, a Mexican state that has been plagued by drug violence over the past decade.
In January vigilante groups wielding hunting rifles and assault weapons pushed the Knights Templar out of several towns in that state.
“We are doing this because we are all human, and we are all Mexican,” said Jose Diaz, a native of Zacatecas state, who helped organize a fundraising event in San Jose on Saturday. "It’s our obligation to help those in need, or in this case, to help those who want to defend themselves.”
Most, though not all, of those donating come from Michoacan. They have relatives who’ve been kidnapped by the Knights Templar, or who have experienced first hand its widespread practice of forcing taxes upon local businesses. In their eyes, the vigilante groups are liberating Michoacan from the oppression of cartels.
“All of our relatives were suffering from extorsion there,” said Irma Gonzalez a resident of San Jose, who hails from the town of Tecalpatepec.
Gonzalez attended a candle light vigil for the victims of violence in Michoacan in which immigrants also scrounged up funds for the vigilante groups. “Even if the [Knights Templar] did not tax your business you were paying them because they were placing taxes on milk, on beef, on tortillas,” Gonzalez said.
Frustration with the Mexican government unites the immigrants in the United States who are raising funds for the vigilante groups. Most of them accuse the Mexican government of doing little to stop the Knights Templar cartel, and see the vigilante groups as a natural response to the government’s incapacity to stop crimes like murder, extorsion and kidnapping.
“Traditionally, the correct thing is for families to take care of themselves,” said Jose Sandoval, an immigrant from Michoacan in his fifties, who leads a group called the San Jose Volunteers’ Committee. “When we pay the government to take care of our security we end up being murdered,” Sandoval said.
It’s difficult to come by hard figures of how much money has been sent from California to Michoacan. But there is a large population of potential donors: Immigrants groups claim that in California there are one million people with relatives in Michoacan.
Sandoval estimates that immigrant groups could have sent as much as $250,000 to vigilante groups over the past five months. The money is collected in cash at meetings, or is wired directly to the accounts of vigilante leaders in Michoacan.
“I’ve held seven meetings, and at each one, we’ve raised between $500 and $600,” Sandoval said.
According to Sandoval, and other community leaders contacted by Univision, the money sent by immigrants is not being used for weapons purchases. Instead fundraisers say it goes towards supplies like gasoline and medicine and cash payments to the widows of vigilante group fighters who’ve fallen in combat.
In the past five weeks thousands of dollars have also been sent directly to the family of Jose Manuel Mireles, a well-known militia leader who recently survived a plane crash, and now has expensive medical bills to pay.
“He called me recently and told me that 1.8 million pesos [$140,000] had been deposited in his account, but that now it had gone down to 50 thousand pesos,” Sandoval said.
Immigrant groups don’t have any professionals on the ground monitoring how the money that they send is spent, so there is some risk that it could be used to buy weapons, or that it could simply be misused.
But such calculations are secondary to most people who’ve been raising funds in California, and have relatives who’ve been directly affected by drug violence in Michoacan.
Many immigrants think it is justified for vigilante groups to get weapons to defend themselves in any case, and some are not very worried about the kind of logistical details of aid expenditure that would concern a government agency or an NGO.
“We cannot control what they do with the money,” Jose Diaz said. “We do things with the best intentions and that’s where our obligation ends.”
When asked if he was worried that sending money to armed groups could inflame the conflict, Diaz did not hesitate in his response.
“I think that it would be worse to not do anything, than to do something and make a mistake,” Diaz said.
Writing by Manuel Rueda. Reporting by Joaquin Fuentes of Univison.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.