Mexican soldiers stand at a checkpoint at the entrance of the Apatzingan community in the state of Michoacan, Mexico on January 12, 2015
Apatzingán (Mexico) (AFP) - 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 terrorized 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.
- Myth or reality? -
When a group of former rural fighters in Apatzingan is asked if they know Los Viagras, the men shrug their shoulders and looked at each other.
"Los Viagras are just a myth. They do not exist," one said.
But according to an intelligence report released by the newspaper Milenio, Los Viagras are in fact quite real.
Founded by a man named Nicolas Sierra Santana and his seven brothers, it is a group involved in drug trafficking that caters to whoever pays best.
They have acted as hitmen and spies and engaged in extortion for different crime gangs such as La Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar and a cartel called the Jalisco New Generation.
Their name is derived from the nickname of one of the brothers. Locals say he was known as El Viagra because he impregnated a young woman after taking the blue anti-impotence pill.
"The new goal in Michoacan is (to take down) Los Viagras," a federal police commander deployed in Apatzingan told AFP after an armed clash between civilians and officers that left nine people dead on January 6.
It broke out after police tried to expel from town hall around 50 former rural vigilantes who had seized the building in late December to protest the break-up of the force.
Those former fighters, from whom high-caliber weapons were seized, are in fact under the command of Los Viagras, according to the intelligence report.
But the federal commissioner tasked with overseeing security in Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, insisted "there is no evidence whatsoever that people from organized crime have joined the rural force."
- Haven for drug traffickers -
However, former intelligence agent Alejandro Hope says Los Viagras "operate quite openly, almost like a political group."
When the former rural forces allegedly under the gang's command seized city hall in Apatzingan, they said they were acting in support of various social causes such as a rise in electricity rates and alleged abuses by the federal police.
Benitez Manaut fears that Los Viagras, "an average sized cartel that is on the rise," might gain power by obtaining protection from new local leaders in Michoacan, where elections are set for June.
Michoacan is on Mexico's Pacific coast and is thus a vital throughpoint for shipping drugs to the United States.
Tierra Caliente, a remote rural region that is saddled with poverty, was an ideal place for drug traffickers, who for years have produced marijuana, opium poppies and synthetic drugs.
The areas has also been targeted by Los Valencia, who are low profile "businesspeople"; the extremely violent Zetas cartel, and the pseudo-religious La Familia and the Knights Templar.
"Things are never going to change here. It is not Tierra Caliente. It is cursed land," said a taxi driver working the dusty streets of Apatzingan.