TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — The squad of cartel sicarios, or hitmen, fans out across the road as we approach. They take up skirmish positions quickly and professionally, using thorn trees and a nearby fence line for cover. All the weapons are aimed our way. Then their point man waves us forward.
As we come closer, I can see they carry G3 and AR15 assault rifles—some with grenade launchers mounted under the barrels. They wear paramilitary uniforms beneath Kevlar vests, their combat harnesses crammed with 40 mm grenades and spare clips. Ski-masks hide their faces in spite of the desert heat.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the squad leader asks in Spanish, but doesn’t believe us when we tell him.
We walk up the road to a late-model Ford F150, where the leader, who looks to be about 50, calls in to report our capture.
“The gringo claims to be some kind of a writer,” he says into the walkie-talkie, then does his best to sound out the name of this news site from the press pass he holds in his gloved hand. The rest of his men stand around glaring at us, hard-eyed and hateful with suspicion.
Meanwhile the taxi that brought us here—to the supposedly deserted “Fortress of Anunnaki,” a remote stronghold of the Knights Templar cartel in western Mexico’s Tierra Caliente valley—is now nowhere to be seen.
“This is our land and we’ve got to protect it,” the leader of the paramilitary cartel squad says by way of answer, when I ask after our cab and driver. The commander stands half a head taller than the rest of his band, and he wears a bandolier of 12-gauge shotgun shells across his chest.
“We’ve got scouts on every hilltop,” he says, pointing to the gray, scrub-covered, papier-mâché-looking peaks all around us.
“Nobody comes through here that we don’t know about it,” says the leader. When I ask his name he says he won’t give it to me; and when I ask why he says: “Because I don’t want to lie to you.”
It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon on a cloudless and blazing-hot Saturday in late February when we’re waylaid by cartel forces. None of this is what we were expecting when we left the market town of Apatzingán, a few hours before, to photograph the fortress called Anunnaki.
The fort itself was once the home of notorious Templar capo named Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno—who, according to federal indictments in the U.S., was responsible for shipping millions of dollars’ worth of high-grade crystal meth across the border.
Moreno also set up a vast criminal empire here in Tierra Caliente, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where he controlled everything from open-pit mining to lime harvests.
Under Moreno the Knights cartel became famous for its cult-like behavior. Members dressed up like their medieval namesakes and carried out strange rites meant to inspire loyalty and cohesion—including dining on the raw flesh of their victims.
Eventually the sheer power of the Knights cartel led to their downfall—as Moreno’s death-grip on the state finally inspired a massive vigilante uprising.
The Templars’ boss himself was killed under disputed circumstances in March of 2014, and many of his top lieutenants were also arrested or shot dead around the same time. With their forces scattered and weakened, Mexican officials proclaimed the Templars to be finished.
But, Sauron-like, the cannibalistic death cult has begun to grow again in recent months—even spreading beyond Michoacán to neighboring states like Guerrero and Morelos.
“Many Templarios joined the vigilantes after being pardoned,” Lydia González, a radio journalist based in the state capital of Morelia, tells The Daily Beast. “Now the Knights are regaining power. Sometimes they use different names—but these are the same people who used to work under [Templar boss] Nazario.”
González, who has been covering Tierra Caliente for more than 29 years, believes that government corruption at the state level has played a key role in the Templars’ recent comeback.
“In Michoacán,” she says, during a meeting in a restaurant in Apatzingán, “the políticos are the criminals, and the criminals are the políticos.”
Vigilante leader Hipólito Mora also warns of the Templars making a comeback of late:
“Since Nazario was killed, many others want to take his place,” says Mora, who was once challenged to a duel to the death by a Templar commander.
“All the gains we made have been overturned,” Mora says. “Now we have the same problems again that we did three years ago.”
Mora also explains that, in addition to using the “Knights Templar” moniker, many former members of El Mas Loco’s cartel now operate as part of splinter groups with names like “La Nueva Familia” (The New Family), H-3, and Los Justicierios (The Avengers).
“I hope the autodefensas [vigilantes] don’t have to rise up again to fight these cartels,” says Mora, who survived a sniper attack by an H-3 assassin in late February, in which one his bodyguards was badly wounded.
“But if the government doesn’t do anything, the people will have to act,” Mora says.
About 20 minutes later our taxi returns, escorted by two more trucks full of Templar gunmen.
Our driver, whose first name is Lalo, tells me he was parked at the ranch gates when the sicarios showed up and took him away for interrogation. The Templarios, as he calls them, threatened to shoot him if they found out he was lying about anything, he says.
While the taxi is still running I lean in and ask Lalo, 55, what he thinks we ought to do.
“We can’t get away,” says the local taxista, his face pale with fear, his hands atremble on the steering wheel. “Not on these dirt roads. They’d run us down again in just a few minutes.” He also tells me there were some 20 Templars present while he was being questioned. In addition to the half-dozen cartel footsoldiers who are guarding us here at the gates to the fortress, that makes a force of almost 30 gunmen.
“The only thing we can do,” Lalo says, “is what they tell us.”
Despite all the trouble that the resurgent Templarios and their offshoots have caused of late, locals in Apatzingán had assured me that the Knights’ old base of Anunnaki—named by El Mas Loco after the Sumerian gods of the underworld—is still deserted.
A local journalist agreed to accompany me to the fortress, to take photos and videos—but the taxi service had to send three different drivers before we found one with the courage to make the trip.
On the way, Lalo told us that he’d been to Anunnaki once before, during a party thrown by El Mas Loco himself.
“It was a great fiesta,” Lalo recalled, swerving back and forth between lanes to avoid potholes in the road. “They had music, barbecues, even a rodeo. But I was afraid to touch the meat,” he said, alluding to the cartel’s penchant for cannibalism. “All I ate was guacamole.”
The terrain we pass through on the way to Anunnaki was increasingly desolate. An unpopulated landscape covered with mesquite and pipe-organ cactus. Slat-ribbed mules grazed in overgrown fields along both sides of the road, and buzzards circled the dun-colored foothills above us.
After two hours of driving in the midday heat, we finally arrived at the gates to the ranch. And at first it truly seemed deserted, just as we’d been told back in Apatzingán. The main entrance was padlocked, but a side gate stood open, swinging loose on its hinges.
The grounds of the fortress were spectacular, including a private ring for bull fights and rodeos, another ring for cockfights, and the ruins of a casino. A full-sized bandstand was turned on its side, and the wiring and furniture have been looted from the main house, but all in all Anunnaki seemed remarkably well preserved.
A few minutes later, when we tried to leave the ranch, we found out why it all looked so pristine.
Turns out the locals back in town were wrong: Anunnaki was not abandoned after all.
When the cartel foot soldiers search our backpacks they find my notebook, take it from me at gunpoint, and start flipping through it. Eventually they spot the name of vigilante leader—and Templar arch enemy—Hipólito Mora.
“Are you working with the autodefensas?” the leader asks me, as I try to explain that I interviewed the father of the militia movement a couple of days ago, but I don’t know him personally.
“We don’t like that cocksucker Hipólito too much,” the squad leader says, his eyes gone to slits behind his mask. “And we don’t like his fucking friends.”
The commander now launches into a lengthy speech glorifying El Mas Loco, accusing me of trespassing on his fortress.
The cartel chieftain was a great man, we’re informed, who provided work for the poor, money for sick children, and free bull fights for his neighbors.
The autodefensas, on the other hand, are nothing but common “vandals,” who raided El Mas Loco’s house and burned his books “the way Nazis used to burn Bibles.”
It’s been over an hour since we were first shanghaied by the hit squad, and nobody seems to know what to do with us. They keep making calls on their radios, asking for orders, and quarreling among each other about who we really are.
Their communications network is surprisingly sophisticated. Each sicario carries at least two walkie-talkies on his battle harness, and they’re constantly in touch with other mobile units, scouts in the hills, and their jefe de la plaza (chief of operations).
Because the frequencies on their commercial radios aren’t encrypted, and can be monitored by Mexican authorities, the Templarios use an elaborate system of ciphers. One man even carries a laminated card employing different code words—for cop cars, military vehicles, and helicopters.
After almost another full hour the squad leader decides he needs to verify my press credentials over the Internet. There’s no cell phone signal or Web access out this far, so I give him a business card with my personal data to take to his jefe.
In the meantime, he says, we have to wait here under guard.
“If [the boss] says you’re okay, you’ll be free to go,” the squad leader says. “And if not...” he trails off awkwardly—sounding, in fact, for the first time sorry for us—as if even he doesn’t want to contemplate “if not.”
Two trucks race away in a boil of dust, leaving just a few men to stand watch over the three of us. The numbers are more even now, but the hitmen still have automatic weapons. And they seem to know their work—keeping their distance, rifles trained on us at all times.
When my fixer complains about the heat, the guards lead us about a half-mile away from the ranch gates to the only shade around—a single cascalote tree with a thick trunk and a wide-spread crown, the ground around it covered with strange, curled nuts.
“I want you to tell me something,” says one of the two men guarding us. He’s fat in the belly, with a pearl-handled, semi-automatic pistol stuck between his right-side love handle and the waistband of his pants.
“How come you gringos can come down here whenever you want,” he says, his palm atop the expensive handgun, “but we can’t go cross over to El Norte?”
Well, I say, it’s complicated. I glance at the driver, then at my fixer, hoping one of them will say something—but they’re both too terrified to speak.
“Te parece justo esta mierda?” the fat one says, getting worked up now for the debate. He picks up a handful of cascalote nuts, and crushes them easily in one hand. “Does that shit on the border seem fair to you?”
I express my genuine regret for the closed frontier, and for the lack of rights for “illegal” immigrants. I want to say I’ll be voting against Donald Trump, but I worry the mere mention of his name could get me shot.
“Porque no escribes algo bueno por la frontera?” the fat guard with the good pistol wants to know.
If I’m really a writer—why not write something good about the border?
The guard gives his cartel name as Centenario. Twenty-seven years old, and he used to work as a coyote out of Tijuana, helping migrants jump across. Until, he says, he was busted by U.S. customs and spent three-and-half months in jail.
That was six years ago, and he’s been working for the Templarios ever since.
When I ask him why he went over to the cartel he says, “What do you want me to do, man—starve?” and I write that down in my notebook while he watches, as if such notes will make a difference.
Just then, like an alarm clock breaking up a particularly exceptional nightmare, the radio strapped to Centenario’s harness crackles to life.
“El Jefe says you bastards check out okay,” the Templar hitman tells me, sounding ever-so-slightly disappointed at having to set us free.
“Now get your gringo ass on out of here,” he says, “and try to write up something good.”