AJUCHITLAN, Mexico (AP) — Hundreds of vigilantes gathered in the western Mexico state of Michoacan Monday to celebrate the anniversary of a movement that chased a violent drug cartel out of many of its strongholds, and largely ended a reign of terror in which farmers, ranchers and businessmen were subjected to systematic extortion, kidnappings and killings.

The "self-defense" forces organized a Monday Mass to honor those who died in the fight to expel the Knights Templar drug cartel, and vowed not to permit such abuses again.

The Roman Catholic Mass was held at a chapel dedicated to Mexcio's patron saint the Virgin of Guadalupe, erected in the Michoacan town of La Ruana on the site where the Knights Templar, a pseudo-religious gang with evangelical influences, had built a shrine to its founder.

After the Mass, armed self-defense leaders marched through La Ruana, where the movement began on Feb. 24, 2013, accompanied by children bearing white balloons signifying peace.

Leader Hipolito Mora recalled how, just one year ago, with a handful of friends and some old shotguns, he called on townspeople gathered in the center of La Ruana to take on the well-armed cartel. A lime grower, like many here, he was spurred to action after cartel-controlled packing houses refused to handle fruit from his orchards.

"I had been trying to do this for about three years, but I didn't have much luck," Mora recalled. "Everybody was afraid." But the movement caught fire, and in the course of a year — with money from wealthy ranchers and businessmen to buy assault rifles and body armor — the vigilantes have kicked the Knights Templar out of a dozen key towns and cities.

With roadblocks and patrols, often carried out jointly with the army and police, they now control much of Michoacan's agricultural plains.

At the height of the battle last year, food, jobs and gasoline were scarce as the cartel tried to starve out the inhabitants, or forbade them from going to work.

Now, the Rev. Javier Cortes, a Catholic priest in Apatzingan, the city once considered the Knights Templar stronghold, says things have changed since vigilantes entered the cities in joint patrols with the army and police this month to chase out the cartel gunmen. In a community where gunmen once burned down any business that dared to open its doors, Cortes says "people are happy, there is work."

But the movement's success may have drawn some former members of the Knights Templar and its predecessor cartel, La Familia Michoacana, into vigilantes' ranks.

"The entrance of people who were members of La Familia, of some repentant members of the Knights Templar into their ranks — that has caused a lot of fear, a lot of mistrust," said Cortes.

The vigilantes' example has spread to the neighboring state of Guerrero, where about 100 representatives of mountain towns met Sunday in the town of Ajuchitlan, near the border with Michoacan, to form their own self-defense movement. Many at the meeting carried assault rifles.

After fierce gunbattles in the mountains around Ajuchitlan last week, villagers met in the hamlet of Four Crosses to form the Council of Towns of the High Mountains of Guerrero to protect their hamlets from bands of gunmen belonging to La Familia. The state government says two people were killed in gunfights; local residents says at least six were killed and two more inhabitants were kidnapped and are feared dead.

The area's pine-covered mountains are coveted by drug cartels for numerous reasons: as a hideout from vigilantes and federal forces in Michoacan; as a shipment route for drugs landing on the nearby coast; and because criminals can exploit the area's rich mineral deposits and illegal logging businesses.

One resident of the farming community of El Balcon, who refused to give his name for fear of reprisal, said of the newly formed self-defense forces, "we are willing to do anything, even give our lives, to protect our people."