New gang on the rise in troubled Mexico

New gang on the rise in troubled Mexico
Symbolic coffins are placed during a protest against the violence and organized crime on January 9, 2014 in Apatzingan. A deadly clash erupted on January 6th between federal forces and civilians in Apatzingan, a former Knights Templar stronghold. Officials say at least nine people died after federal police and soldiers took back control of City Hall from a group that had been occupying it since December

APATZINGÁN, Mexico - A new armed group is on the rise in Mexico's violence-wracked Michoacan state. It's called Los Viagras, and its members say they are fighting for "social causes".

The shadowy group is nevertheless also trying to take over old strongholds of a drug cartel on the decline, the Knights Templar.

In the mountains, members of Los Viagras are "quiet, waiting for the moment to muster strength and power," said Javier Cortes, a religious leader in the diocese of Apatzingan.

Apatzingan, a city of 120,000, is the economic hub of Michoacan's violent Tierra Caliente region.

It also is the former bastion of the Knights Templar, who terrorised the entire state in recent years under the protection of the local authorities.

The once dominant Knights Templar is believed to have been weakened since the emergence of vigilante forces formed by lime and avocado farmers in 2013.

Last year, the federal government legalized part of the movement in a security team known as the rural force.

Mexican forces have managed to practically dismantle the Knights Templar leadership, killing the chief in March last year.

But some of the deputized vigilantes have been accused of having been infiltrated by gangs, while others have been fighting each other, and the government now says the rural force will be disbanded.

Los Viagras "are taking advantage of their connections with paramilitary groups. The time is right for them to become the next bosses of Michoacan," said Raul Benitez Manaut, an expert in public security at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Although they are still not all that powerful, the group "might pose a new challenge to the state," said Jaime Rivera, a researcher at Michoacan University.

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