LA NOPALERA (Mexico) (AFP) - Under the watch of vigilantes, a pair of captured drug cartel henchmen mop the floors and cook in a dusty, sparsely furnished house in Mexico's unruly west.
The duo once worked as "hawks," or lookouts, for the cult-like Knights Templar gang that terrorized Michoacan, but they are now in the hands of civilian defense militias that have ousted the cartel from several towns.
The vigilantes, who are marking their one-year anniversary this month, came together to combat a cartel that they accused of murdering, kidnapping and extorting their populations in the lush agricultural state.
The civilian militias now say they want to "rehabilitate" the less-virulent, low-ranking former members of the Knights Templar, because punishing all would be a tall task in a state where the cartel was so entrenched in society.
The two young men held in La Nopalera, a town within the former gang-dominated municipality of Apatzingan, sleep on dirty mattresses in a ramshackle house they share with 10 vigilantes.
"The order is to hold them for three months under my watch and simply convince them psychologically that they have to take the correct path," said a vigilante leader who goes by the name Comandante Patancha.
"If they escape, they may not be pardoned," said the mustachioed man.
- No better option -
If they change their ways, however, they can return home or join the self-defense force, which could earn them $450 a month, close to what they earned with the cartel.
"If the Knights Templar were to catch us, they would kill us," said Manuel, who gave a fake name for fear of being targeted by his former employers.
"Now I don't have a better option than to help the self-defenses," the married, 25-year-old father of two said.
Manuel and his cohort Carlos, who also gave a fake name, say they are much better off with the vigilantes, who feed them and do not tie them up. They even receive weapons training.
When they worked for the cartel, they faced beatings and threats for underperformance.
The cartel sees itself as a righteous order defending Michoacan, indoctrinating its recruits with pseudo-religious literature inspired by the Christian crusaders.
Manuel and Carlos say they were captured by federal police and then handed over to the vigilantes.
The federal government has deployed almost 10,000 police and troops to Michoacan in a bid to curb the violence, and last month it struck a deal to legalize the growing vigilante movement.
The government says it has captured more than 300 people linked to organized crime, but the authorities have yet to capture Knights Templar leader Servando "La Tuta" Gomez.
Manuel says he joined the cartel because he was not earning enough picking limes in the Tierra Caliente ("Hot Land") region, Mexico's lime and avocado heartland.
But Carlos admits that, like many of his friends in Apatzingan, he was allured by the gang life, partly because it made it easier to woo women.
"You would see these armed guys walking around and nobody could say anything to them," the svelte 20-year-old said. "You wanted to be like them."
- Can't banish all -
The Knights Templar gang once roamed Michoacan with impunity, riding in cars bearing their symbol, the Christian crusaders' red cross. Vigilantes have destroyed altars that had been built in honor of a Knights leader.
Estanislao Beltran, the spokesman for the self-defense militias, said towns in Tierra Caliente were "in complete collusion with the Knights Templar."
"Are we going to capture and banish all of them? Are we going to create ghost towns? What are we going to do?" he wondered, adding that some towns have formed citizen assemblies to decide the fate of captured gang members.
A vigilante in charge of a checkpoint in the town of Pinzandaro said the militias are getting help from members of a gang known as Los Viagras, who have broken away from the Knights Templar.
Self-defense leaders have been accused of having been part of organized crime groups. Federal officials have said that some vigilantes who were detained last year admitted to getting support from the Knights Templar cartel's enemy, the Jalisco New Generation gang.
But vigilante leaders say the agreement with the government that legalizes their movement, which calls for militiamen to join "rural defense" forces under the army, will allow them to purge their ranks of any cartel infiltrators.