TIERRA CALIENTE, Mexico — You arrive in the plaza of this dusty little town by taxi, already sweating in the noonday heat, on your way to the hideout of a mysterious armed group called Los Viagras.
Then the taxi pulls away, and you’re left standing there alone.
This nameless village looks to be little more than a string of tin-roofed huts and makeshift cock-fighting pits about 30 minutes from the market town called Apatzingán, in the western state of Michoacán.
The townsfolk are all farmers, most of whom work in the nearby lime and mango orchards. These campesinos stare at you standing in the cloud of dust left by your departing taxi not with unfriendliness so much as utter disbelief.
Soon, however, your Viagras handler arrives, rattling through the plaza in a beige Nissan Sentra with a bullet-cracked windshield.
“You have to give me your cell phone,” the handler says, by way of greeting, “so you can’t be tracked.” So you agree to turn it over and then, phone-less, you’re driven out into the sun-roasted fields of the campo.
Tierra Caliente, where this meeting takes place, is on the State Department watch list for U.S. citizens. And with good reason. Several Americans have been killed in or near the region, including the much publicized case of a motorcycle tourist mistaken for a DEA agent. Another hapless yanqui was found tortured and burned to death in Tierra Caliente just a few weeks ago.
In other words, gringo: You’ve been warned.
It’s the last Saturday in February, and you’re about to meet Viagras leader Nicolás Sierra Santana—aka “El Gordo,” or The Fat One. Since the capture of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, back in January, El Gordo has become one of the most wanted men in Mexico.
The regional district attorney has outstanding arrest orders out for Gordo Sierra, charging him with multiple counts of homicide, robbery, extortion, and kidnapping. One of the group’s top sicarios, or assassins, was busted by a joint task force in early February, after allegedly committing dozens of murders on his boss’s behalf.
And yet, during two weeks spent trying to track El Gordo down, you’ve heard many conflicting tales about the Viagras and their jefe. In fact, many locals reject that very idea that The Fat One is a criminal at all.
Multiple sources in Apatzingán and the surrounding communities have told you they see Los Viagras as heroes—valiant freedom fighters brave enough to take on both local cartels and a corrupt state government.
The police in Mexico—and especially in Michoacán—are famously dirty, often acting on behalf of criminal groups. Since ordinary citizens first began fighting back against the drug gangs in this part of the country, in 2013, several other anti-cartel militia leaders have been wrongly imprisoned on trumped up charges. So it’s not impossible that El Gordo really is less evil than depicted.
And that’s why you’re here, in a shot-up ride and with no phone, racing on up into the foothills where El Gordo is hiding.
You’ve come to meet the man behind the man and ask him to his face: Just who are the Viagras?—and what, if anything, do they stand for?
About 12 miles down the road from the plaza a narrow dirt road cuts off into the dry tropical forest. The dominant species in this area is mesquite, but higuera, anona, and coyul fruit trees also grow near natural springs. After a few more miles the handler turns off the unpaved track into a clearing in what seems like empty, rolling woodland.
But El Gordo’s camp is here, invisible from the road, protected on all sides by old-growth timber. A narrow path leads from the clearing into a thicket that shelters three 4x4s and two campfires. Ten or 12 bodyguards—most of them young men in their early twenties—patrol the camp with AK47s on their shoulders, pistols stuck into their belts.
Gordo Sierra is seated in a plastic lawn chair beside one of the brush-laden campfires, bathing in greenwood smoke to ward off mosquitos. He’s got a full beard, a dry handshake, and a sly, one-side-of-the-mouth-only smile. At 38 years old he sports a hefty paunch—hence his nickname—and he’s wearing jeans, a gray polo shirt, and a blue baseball cap.
“The pueblo [community] supports me around here,” he explains, once the interview is underway. “They protect me, they hide me, because I fight to protect them,” he says, in answer to a question about whether he worries about the authorities hunting him down, as they did Chapo Guzmán.
“When the troops come in force, the people will rise up to defend me,” says El Gordo, who claims to command about a thousand Viagras footsoldiers. The alleged cartel chieftain adds that his men maintain a sophisticated surveillance system that includes monitoring police and military radio frequencies.
“The authorities know where I am, but they’re afraid to come after me because of the scandal I could make by talking [about the government’s links to organized crime].”
For that reason, he says, officials “don’t want to arrest me, they want to kill me. But my people aren’t going to let that happen.”
El Gordo says that, unlike Chapo, he and his men are determined to avoid cloistered urban areas where they can be outmaneuvered and pinned down.
“I can live my whole life in the sierra if I have to,” he says. “As long as I have my freedom, every day is a gift.”
El Gordo and the rest of the Viagras are used to a life on the lam in the mountains. The group was once a paramilitary wing of the much-feared Knights Templar cartel, working as an enforcer squad under the direct command of crime lord Servando “La Tuta” (The Teacher) Gómez.
The Templars made their fortune cooking and shipping crystal meth to the States, but they also branched out to take over many local industries. El Gordo’s old cartel—which also doubled as a quasi-religious death cult—became so powerful in Michoacán that they eventually brought on their own downfall.
In February of 2013, ordinary citizens across Michoacán began to enlist in well-armed vigilante groups, aiming to strike down the Knights. After seeing their early successes, the Mexican government got on board as well, funding the militias and using them to run point for field operations against the cartel.
When they realized their old boss’s days were numbered, the Viagras flipped sides, joining the nascent autodefensas (self-defense groups). Due to their tactical know-how, state officials soon folded El Gordo’s Viagras into an elite task force called the G250—then sent them up into the Sierra Madre del Sur to hunt down La Tuta and his remaining followers.
La Tuta was captured in February of 2015, and many of his fellow capos were either killed or incarcerated at about the same time. With the threat posed by the Templars removed, officials changed their position on the vigilantes, disbanding some groups by force, and eventually declaring the whole movement to be illegal.
Unfortunately, the suppression of the autodefensas has led to a resurgence of powerful crime groups across Michoacán, as Templar splinter cells rebounded, often co-opting former vigilantes into their ranks.
“The Mexican government first ignored, then confronted and finally attempted to morph self-defense groups into a government-controlled rural police force,” says Maureen Meyer, a Mexican expert with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an email to The Daily Beast.
“None of these efforts have been able to successfully or fully rein in these citizen groups or control the security situation in Michoacán,” Meyer says, leading to “the citizenry’s sense that the Mexican government [is] failing to come to their aid.”
Viagras leader El Gordo also blames the government for the current security crisis in Michoacán.
“The state armed us, trained us, and then abandoned us,” says Sierra, during our meeting in his forest hideaway. “Now they want to persecute us.”
According to El Gordo, the government’s crackdown on its former vigilante allies is actually fomenting violence in the region. Once the militias were forced to go underground, he says, they had “to engage in illegal activities in order to raise money to go on defending the pueblo.”
When I ask what Sierra uses to defend himself, he pulls out a chrome-plated, 9 mm pistol with filigrees of wild mustangs etched into the grip and slide.
“In two months I could stabilize the state, if they let me,” the self-avowed vigilante waves his expensive pistol emphatically, but “the government is very close to certain drug trafficking groups.”
El Gordo names the Jalisco Cartel: the New Generation, as being a crime group deliberately shielded by the state.
“If I had enough money to pay off the government,” Sierra says, “they wouldn’t be hunting for me now.”
It’s not just the police and army who have it in for El Gordo’s band of enigmatic warriors. The recent appearance of narcomantas (cartel banners) across the state have made it clear that Templar offspring like La Nueva Familia, as well as rival groups of vigilantes—are also targeting the Viagras.
Over the same weekend that I met with Sierra, at least 19 people were killed in separate gun battles in Tierra Caliente and surrounding communities—all of them victims of infighting between the Viagras and other armed factions seeking to take over their turf, according to the Michoacán state police.
El Gordo says the new threat posed by the Templars’ descendants has made it impossible for him and his men to disarm themselves, despite the government’s call for all vigilantes to lay down their weapons.
“If we did give up our guns,” he asks, “how long do you think it would take for [our enemies] to kill us all?”
When it comes to the question of whether or not the Viagras are a criminal group, El Gordo breaks character for the first time in the interview. Until now he’s been genial, even charming, offering up lemonade and a homemade dish of fruit cocktail against the heat.
But now he stands and leans his bulk in over me to make his point.
“The Viagras don’t have any nexus with organized crime,” he says. “We don’t run labs. We don’t kidnap people. It’s all lies!”
Then he sits down, the storm of his rage already passed. He admits, smiling slyly, that he’d once invested in labs to produce crystal meth—which he refers to in English as “ice”—but says he gave all that up when he joined the autodefensas.
When I ask about rumors to the contrary, he elaborates further:
“We don’t run ice labs anymore, because the government is too good at finding them. So it’s just not convenient.”
In any case, he continues, running “ice” is no longer profitable. Most of the raw material for making meth used to come from China, entering Michoacán through the Pacific city of Lázaro Cárdenas—Mexico’s largest shipping port—but an increase in Chinese regulations has choked off the supply.
The ingredients “used to come in disguised as perfume, in shipments of three or four thousand barrels,” he says. “Now there might be 100 [barrels] at a time.”
The destruction of the supply chain has impacted both the quality and quantity of product turned out by meth kitchens in Michoacán. Meanwhile, the loss of drug revenue has forced local cartels to diversify in order to maintain funding.
According to Sierra, that’s part of the reason for the recent uptick in extortion and abductions. Other cartel moneymakers in Michoacán include tapping into the mining, agriculture, and shipping industries, although he repeats that the Viagras are innocent of such endeavors.
Instead he claims the Viagras—whose name came from the slicked-up, erect hair style favored by one of Sierra’s brothers during their school boy days in the nearby town of Pinzándaro—pay their expenses by cattle ranching and lime farming.
“During the war against the Templarios I was always on the front lines, always in the center of the fighting—and I made a lot of enemies. That’s why they’re after me now,” he insists.
“The government doesn’t have any evidence against me. But don’t take my word for it. You’re a journalist,” he says. “Why don’t you go investigate the [authorities’] charges against me for yourself?”
Turns out an investigation into the state’s charges against Gordo Sierra reveals as much about the shady nature of Mexican law enforcement as it does the Viagras’ leader.
Neither the military nor official police spokespeople will share intel on El Gordo, despite repeated requests for information.
Finally the state DA’s office tells The Daily Beast that Sierra and his brothers are wanted on narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, and multiple murder charges—including the killing of infamous crime boss Carlos Rosales, who ran a rival cartel called La Familia Michoacana, and who was gunned down last December.
But not all law enforcement officers agree with the DA’s stance. A member of the Michoacán state police force, who agreed to be quoted only under the condition of anonymity, since he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press—backs up El Gordo’s claims of relative innocence.
“The Viagras are vigilantes, and maybe they’ve committed wrongful acts under the name of fighting crime—but that doesn’t make them criminals themselves. From my perspective, the group is clean,” the officer said. “But not everybody in the fiscalia [The DA’s office] sees it that way.”
Others in Michoacán take a dimmer view of the Viagras’ handiwork:
“If they’re carrying weapons illegally—doesn’t that by definition make them criminals?” says Lydia González, a radio host in the state capital of Morelia, who’s been covering the crime beat in Michoacán for three decades. “Authorities asked them to turn in their arms, and they refused. That automatically makes the group illegal,” she says.
González fully acknowledges El Gordo’s point that the government “betrayed and abandoned” the autodefensa movement—but she says that doesn’t excuse the group’s current actions.
“They behave like criminals,” she says, “or like insurgents. They assault people and steal cars and kidnap for ransom. The only reason they seem to have so much support [in the community] is because people are afraid to speak out against them.”
During the five hours I spend at his hideaway, El Gordo shows himself to be a surprisingly astute critic of culture and politics. He tells me he recently watched the film Cartel Land—and even brags about having participated in the production of the Oscar-nominated documentary—but was disappointed with the final results, which he saw as painting an unfairly negative picture of the vigilante movement.
He also says the film led to reprisals in the criminal underworld, including the killing of the police officer shown speaking into the camera and cooking meth during the opening and closing scenes.
El Gordo likewise speaks out against current Republican front-runner Donald Trump, calling him “a modern Hitler—but intelligent.” He likens Trump to the leader of a criminal cartel, in that he uses his ill-gotten wealth to gain political influence.
Like any mafia honcho, Sierra says, The Donald is only as strong as those who back him.
“Trump is just a puppet,” he says. “I don’t blame him—I blame his followers.”
With the sun starting to go down, El Gordo’s men build up their cook fires against the coming night.
Being wanted by both officials and Knights Templar splinter groups means Sierra and his men are always on the move—often sleeping in small tents, or in the cabs of their 4x4 trucks.
“I’d like to have a normal life,” El Gordo says. “I don’t want to have to wear a pistol all the time. And I’d like to live again in my own house, with my wife and children—instead of sleeping out here with the mosquitos.”
Before you take your leave of the outlaw leader, you ask him what he thinks is the solution to the violent crime still plaguing Michoacán.
“The problem is that the wealthy and powerful have made it so that there are no resources available to improve people’s lives,” he says, sounding more like a Mexican Bernie Sanders than a warlord with a price on his head.
“The government takes in taxes but keeps them all for itself. Michoacán is a rich land—so why is there so much poverty here? Why do the poor suffer and go hungry? The level of government corruption has gone past its limits,” El Gordo says.
And, at least on this theme, WOLA’s Meyer agrees with the Viagras’ headman:
“The Mexican government should work with citizens to better identify members of organized criminal groups operating in their communities and corrupt politicians working in collusion with these groups,” says Meyer, who also calls for “efforts to strengthen the professionalization and accountability of Mexico’s police forces and its capacity to successfully prosecute and sanction criminal acts.”
Radio journalist González has an even simpler solution:
“The best way to fight crime in Michoacán,” she says, “is with employment.”
Your handler warms up the bullet-riddled car that will take you back to the same dusty plaza—back to your phone, and the relative safety of your hotel. Before you depart, the outlaw commander gives you a last dry, parting handshake.
“The fiscalía says I’m an enemy of the people—but the people know better,” El Gordo says.
“They know their real enemy is the government itself.”