Why the autodefensas won concessions

February 4, 2014

Brian Napoletano and Héctor A. Rivera analyze the backdrop to an agreement between the Mexican government and self-defense groups in Michoacán.

TWO WEEKS after the Mexican Army entered the territory of Tierra Caliente in the western state of Michoacán, the government agreed to cooperate with the Consejo de Autodefensas Unidas de Michoacán (Council of United Self-Defense Groups of Michoacán)--or autodefensas--to safeguard the region from the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) crime cartel.

From the beginning, the government's heavy-handed intervention in Tierra Caliente has been disastrous, resulting in the death of four civilians on the first day of the Army's presence in the town of Antuúnez. Following a wave of popular resistance to military intervention and a series of protests in Mexico and the U.S. condemning the government's attempts to disarm the autodefensas, the Army had to back down and rethink its strategy.

The signing of an eight-point agreement between the autodefensas, the Department of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs technically legalizes the existence of communal armed self-defense groups in the region of Tierra Caliente and incorporates them into the newly created Cuerpos de Defensa Rural (Rural Defense Corps).

Autodefensas on patrol in Tierra Caliente
Autodefensas on patrol in Tierra Caliente (Esther Vargas)

These developments mark a major shift in government and Army policy in Michoacán. Overall, the agreement represents an important victory for the autodefensas in their fight for regional security against Templarios and unrestrained military forces.

The agreement stipulates that the autodefensas will register their weapons and provide personnel lists to the Department of Defense. In exchange, the autodefensas will keep their weapons and receive government aid in communications, transport and security cooperation to safeguard the liberated towns from Templario incursions. Among other points, the agreement is supposed to institute widespread changes to facilitate the distribution of government aid and resources to address complaints of corruption and the local and regional levels of state government acting with impunity.

While the agreement might not be exactly what the autodefensas hoped for, it represents a win for their side in the campaign against organized crime. The primary concern of the autodefensas has been the safety of their communities and protection from the Templarios' reign of terror.

However, it remains to be seen how well the government will live up to the agreement, since changes at the local level will necessitate a major effort to clear out corrupt officials with ties to drug cartels. The adamant refusal of the autodefensas to turn in their weapons is a clear sign of skepticism that the government can address their grievances and provide security in the short term.

Meanwhile, the Army and state police have taken actions to meet the demands of the autodefensas regarding the Templarios cartel. Dionisio Loya Plancarte (alias "El Tio Nicho") and Jesús Vázquez Macías ("El Toro"), two key figures in the Templario hierarchy, have been arrested since the government's intervention in the region. However, the top leader of the Templarios, Enrique "El Kike" Plancarte Solís, and the cartel's most outspoken and sleazy public figure, Servando "La Tuta" Gómez, remain at large.

Among the series of scandals and controversies surrounding the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto and his ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), the conflict in Tierra Caliente has been his most significant public humiliation.

The government had sought to portray the results from this latest round of negotiations with the autodefensas as a successful example of mediation and open dialogue with civil movements. However, the successful resistance of the autodefensas to the government's initial demands--that the autodefensas surrender their weapons and disarm--underlines the state's diminishing legitimacy as its ability to assure even basic protection to its citizens deteriorates.

THERE IS a lot at stake in the outcomes of events in Tierra Caliente, and competing interests on the ground highlight the complexity of the situation. At least four major groups are involved in this situation.

The most obvious of these is the crime cartels--specifically, the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the immediate targets of the autodefensas, and their rival cartel, Nueva Generación (New Generation), based in the neighboring state of Jalisco.

The two cartels have been fighting for control over Tierra Caliente, and Nueva Generación would stand to gain from the elimination of the Templarios. The autodefensas, however, have denied any links to Nueva Generación, and have stated that they will not permit any cartel to operate in their region. For their part, the Templarios, offshoots of the Michoacán-based cartel La Familia, claim that their primary role in the region is to protect community members from kidnapping, extortion and robberies by rival gangs.

This rhetoric, though, is common to the major crime cartels, which, like other commercial enterprises, attempt to maintain a positive image with the general public and in their communities. Thus, some cartels even publicly provided relief to victims of Hurricane Ingrid in late-September of 2013.

For many youth, work for the cartels offers the only option for a reliable income in a country where well-paid stable jobs are hard to come by. According to World Bank and other reports, more than 50 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, and according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics (INEGI), as of 2013, 60 percent of the population works in the informal sector.

The reality of life with the cartels, however, also includes extortion, kidnapping and violence, which autodefensas in Tierra Caliente have cited as the primary factors motivating their actions. Some of the most egregious abuses have been against women in the region, who have been subjected to abduction, rape, torture and murder at the hands of the Templarios.

The second major group involved in the conflict is the government, with its different and sometimes competing interests between departments and at the municipal, state and federal levels.

At the municipal level, the Templarios control most of the region through a combination of bribery and intimidation. Following the assassination of the mayor of Santa Ana Maya in November of last year, La Jornada reported that at least 100 of the state of Michoacan's 113 mayors routinely received payments from the Templarios in exchange for the liberty to continue "business as usual"--and that those who refused were often intimidated or eliminated. Many of the local police, who are in some cases so underfunded that they cannot afford firearms and other basic equipment, are similarly encouraged to overlook the activities of the Templarios.

Although state and federal officials ostensibly want to control the region, violent confrontations between security forces and narcos threaten to undermine already-strained tourism revenues. This may explain why, despite the "crackdown" on narcos in Michoacán initiated by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2006, many of the residents of the Tierra Caliente region assert that federal forces have taken little action against the Templarios.

It may also help explain the state and federal governments' inconsistent positions toward the autodefensas. Indeed, the government's change its strategy toward the autodefensas has been criticized by elites associated with both the state and federal governments, suggesting diverging positions within them.

THE THIRD major group is the autodefensas themselves, which were formed primarily in response to the government's failure to protect communities from violence perpetrated by the Templarios. With their heterogeneous class composition, the autodefensas and their objectives have been subjected to numerous misinterpretations, despite the fact that the groups have repeatedly stated those objectives in unequivocal terms.

Government authorities have accompanied their demands that the autodefensas surrender their weapons with invitations to join the police forces, but Estanislao Beltrán Torres, coordinator of the autodefensa groups in Tierra Caliente, told La Jornada Michoacán in response that they "are not demanding work, we are cleaning the house." Many of those involved have stated that they intend to return to their homes and livelihoods once the Templarios have been permanently evicted from the region.

Several Northern newspapers labeled the autodefensas as "vigilantes," which is similarly deceptive. The groups were not formed to police or control the region, but as a means of self-defense against the abuses and depredations of the Templarios.

Then there is the fourth major group of actors: The residents of Tierra Caliente who have not joined the autodefensas, as well as their supporters throughout Mexico and the U.S.

As mentioned previously, women have comprised one of the most adversely affected segments of the community. The disproportionate violence against women by narcos and military forces is a common feature throughout Mexico, as the "machismo" that permeates all aspects of Mexican culture marginalizes women and renders them particularly vulnerable to attack.

Rampant racism and xenophobia directed against indigenous ethnicities and Central Americans has also rendered these two groups more vulnerable to abuses, and impoverished women belonging to both these groups bear the threefold burdens of poverty and ethnic- and gender-based marginalization.

In addition to participating in the autodefensas, some women have armed themselves independently, and are prepared to kill anyone who attacks them or their families.

THE IMMEDIATE impetus for the autodefensas was the Mexican government's failure to ensure basic security in the region, but this failure and the popular consciousness of the government's lack of concern for the population are rooted in politico-economic developments running back to the Mexican revolution.

Even prior to the neoliberal policies that began in the 1970s and 1980s, Mexico's position as a semi-peripheral state caused more extreme economic polarization and foreign-dominated industry than is common in the U.S., and class conflicts have therefore tended to be more visible and violent.

Since the revolution, the Mexican government has historically employed practices described as "clientelistic" to co-opt oppositional movements, such as labor unions and other organizations. While this initially helped to solidify the government's position and control dissent, most of the population has little faith in the government and believes it acts primarily to advance its own interests and enhance the wealth of the small proportion of the population that is already extremely wealthy.

This, coupled with rampant corruption, means the government at all levels has very little popular support, and readily turns to violence and intimidation when co-optation fails. Thus, the government is frequently seen as a parasitic institution at best, and often as an impediment to progress and prosperity.

The readiness with which the PRI began implementing neoliberal policies in the 1980s and accepted the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s reinforced the perception that the Mexican government has little concern for the majority of the population. Meanwhile, the "war on drugs" that intensified during the 12 years that the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, or National Action Party) held the presidency is similarly viewed as more of an effort to appease U.S. capital than to protect Mexico's inhabitants.

Finally, the Mexican government's relative silence about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border--which, in addition to making border crossings more perilous, has further intensified drug-related violence within the country as different cartels battle for control over the remaining openings--has even further reinforced the view that the Mexican government is subjugated to economic and geopolitical forces in the U.S.

The current president, Peña Nieto, enjoys very little popular support. Faith in the reliability of the electoral system is virtually non-existent, especially after two presidential victories were blatantly stolen from the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution). Even younger segments of the population are familiar with the PRI's history of brutal repression during its 80 years of one-party rule. Thus, the vast majority of the Mexican population doesn't bother to vote at all.

THE AUTODEFENSAS are just one example of the popular movements that have formed in response to the government's failures. Community police movements in other parts of the country; the student-centered YoSoy132 that erupted to oppose Peña Nieto; the popular, largely indigenous uprising in the Michoacán community of Cherán; even the Zapatista movement--all reflect a similar response to the state, the media and criminal institutions that oppose the interests of the Mexican working class.

Despite their mixed class interests, the autodefensas represent a popular movement in the region that is challenging the authority of both the cartels and the government.

The state's contradictory position of supporting, then opposing, and finally compromising with the autodefensas was likely driven by the realization that the autodefensas expose the impotence and indifference of the government--as well as the fear that, as many of their supporters on the left seem to hope, the aims of the autodefensas could evolve beyond their immediate objective and serve as the foundation for autonomous regional governance.

The immediate wave of resistance to the government's efforts to disarm the autodefensas inside and outside of Tierra Caliente, as well as the opposition to Army control of the area, are clear signs that the autodefensas enjoy widespread popular support. In Michoacán and other parts of the country self-defense groups have begun to appear. Already, in Puebla, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi and the state of Mexico, several groups with similar grievances to those of Tierra Caliente have begun to patrol their communities.

Furthermore, the latest agreement with the government has legitimized the strategy of self-defense in the eyes of many Mexicans at home and abroad.

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