Behind a new armed conflict in Mexico

January 15, 2014

In an already tense scenario unfolding in the south of Mexico, the presence of the Mexican Army is only producing more violence. Héctor A. Rivera reports.

IN THE southwestern state of Michoacán in Mexico, the armed citizen's group known as the Consejo de Autodefensas Unidas de Michoacán (Council of United Self-Defense Groups of Michoacán)--or autodefensas for short--has taken over several towns in the region of Tierra Caliente.

Over the weekend, the autodefensas advanced on the towns of Nueva Italia and Antúnez, and by Monday, they had surrounded their target, the city of Apatzingán, the stronghold of the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) crime cartel.

As this story was being written, the Mexican Army was being deployed in large numbers throughout the region. The Army's confrontations with citizens have already resulted in four deaths, while the government was pursuing negotiations with the autodefensas to disarm them.

OVER THE last year, armed citizen's groups have been carrying out raids on Templario territory, aiming to liberate towns from the cartel. These self-defense groups are deeply embedded in the local communities where they operate. Their latest actions forced the Mexican Army to intervene.

Mexican army troops on patrol in Michoacán
Mexican army troops on patrol in Michoacán

The Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán is located in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and has been connected historically to the drug economy. Control has always changed hands between competing cartels--until the arrival of the autodefensas, the region was controlled by the Knights Templar, a split from the Familia Michoacana cartel.

As a predominantly agrarian region with several commercial and few industrial operations, most people rely on farming, fruit production and small commercial activities to make a living. The region also has a long history of its residents migrating to the U.S.--many people rely on remittances from their families north of the border.

Since 2006, the Knights Templar cartel has held control of the region and the drug economy. Over time, it began instituting quotas and rent payments from citizens and local businesses. All sectors of society were affected by this system of payments, from farmers and businessmen to students and taxi drivers.

According to Dr. José Manuel Mireles, head of the autodefensas council, in his town of Tepalcatepec, most people tolerated the quota system, but when the cartel began breaking into people's houses and raping women, the situation changed. Seeing the inaction and open collaboration of local governments with the Templarios, local townspeople began meeting in secret in the fall of 2012 and devised a plan of action to expel the cartels.

On February 24 of last year, the towns of Tepalcatepec and Buenavista rose up in arms, and the autodefensas conducted a citizen's arrest of dozens of people who worked for the cartel. Attempting to stay within the framework of the law, the autodefensas turned in those they arrested to the regional Army command in the city of Apatzingán. To their disappointment, all cartel operatives arrested on the 24th were released from jail without charges within 24 hours of their capture.

Infuriated by the actions of the Army, the autodefensas continued to organize throughout the region, and as the year progressed, more people rallied to the cause, forming their own self-defense groups and coordinating their operations through the Council of United Self-Defense Groups of Michoacán.

During this time, government forces were nowhere to be seen. Only with the escalation of the conflict over the weekend was the state forced to deploy the Army and state police to take control of Apatzingán and its surroundings.

So far, the large presence of state forces has already resulted in the death of four people--one of them an 11-year-old girl--in the town of Antúnez. Accustomed to complete submission from the population, the military attempted to enter the liberated territories to disarm the autodefensas. But when they were met with large protests and resistance in Antúnez, soldiers fired on the crowd and killed the four people.

The government deployment of armed forces has only served to increase existing tensions to a fever pitch. In the last 24 hours, pictures of heavy artillery and armored personnel vehicles being unloaded in the port of Lazaro Cardenas have been published in social media--it is almost certain these will be deployed in Tierra Caliente. It is unclear if the government intends to arrest members of the Templarios cartel or disarm the autodefensas by force.

IN MEXICO and in Mexican communities in the U.S., all eyes are on Michoacán to see how the government responds.

The autodefensas in Michoacán are technically illegal and considered vigilantes by the state and by foreign policy analysts. As opposed to the constitutionally protected community police forces in the neighboring state of Guerrero, the autodefensas have operated outside the law, but their popular support is so widespread that the government has been unable to disarm them so far.

This appeal has turned into financial support from Mexicans locally and in the U.S., who fundraise to support their activities and purchase weapons. The most organized autodefensa units have a strong presence on social media networks and rely on these networks to disseminate news and information to thousands of followers. Many on social media compare them to revolutionaries, and the appeal of their cause has garnered them widespread backing.

In Guerrero, teachers who protested the federal government's neoliberal education "reform" law passed last year, making their state one of the strongholds of a militant movement that spread across Mexico, developed close collaboration with the community police movement.

By contrast, the autodefensas of Michoacán have not formed an alliance with left organizations or unions. Despite the involvement of elected officials at the local level, they do not identify as a political force.

In a January 14 interview with journalist Carmen Aristegui on her morning radio program for MVS News, Estanislao Beltrán, a spokesperson for the autodefensas of Michoacán, explained their reasons for taking up arms:

Let it be clear that our goal is not to control anybody...Our main objective and the reason why we are fighting is to clean up the 103 municipalities of the state of Michoacán from the organized crime of the Caballeros Templarios. As soon as we clean up all organized crime from our state, we will turn in our weapons to whoever asks for them.

We are not criminals. We are working people. We are not interested in becoming the police or commanders. We are dedicated to our work, we are people with families, and we love our families. But we are fed up with this situation. We are tired of living humiliated.

There are rumors that the autodefensas are connected to the Cartel de Jalisco, a rival cartel that has been vying for control of the region since before the autodefensas took up arms last year. In the same interview, Aristegui asked Beltrán what the autodefensas would do about other cartels. He replied:

We will not allow any cartel to enter. We will remain organized so that we do not allow any cartel to exist in the sate of Michoacán. We are tired--we are fed up of living in these conditions.

THIS LATEST round of armed violence in Michoacán and the rise to prominence of the autodefensas demonstrates the state's inability to maintain control throughout the country. Despite the attempts by President Enrique Peña Nieto and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to keep drug-related violence and insecurity in the background, events in Tierra Caliente have forced it to the forefront of people's minds.

Furthermore, the refusal of the autodefensas to put down their weapons demonstrates the widespread mistrust of the government by people in the region--a mistrust that is shared by a majority of Mexicans inside and outside the country.

The armed offensive by the autodefensas against organized crime has placed them at the center of a debate in Mexico about the state's role in maintaining the rule of law. What's more, in the face of the state's widespread collusion with the cartels and its absolute incompetence in guaranteeing the safety of Mexicans, the autodefensas' strategy of armed self-defense begs the question if this is the correct model for citizens to pursue in the "war on organized crime."

Regardless of what happens in Michoacán, it's clear the conditions that produced the situation in Tierra Caliente exist in many other parts of the country. Poverty, unemployment and violence are all results of a class war waged against Mexican peasants and workers, with increasing intensity since implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago this month. The rise of the drug economies is a result of such free trade agreements as well as U.S. drug policy.

Until major changes occur regarding drug policy and the economic course in Mexico and the U.S., we will continue to see more armed conflicts in Mexico.

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