Siding with the cartels against the autodefensas

August 19, 2014

Héctor A. Rivera analyses the latest developments in Tierra Caliente, Michoacán, and the repercussions and lessons for Mexicans nationwide.

ALTHOUGH THE autodefensa (self-defense) movement of Michoacán seemed to gain strength with military and political victories earlier this year, the arrest of its leader, Dr. José Manuel Mireles, in late June by Mexican authorities has fragmented the movement and halted its offensive against the criminal organization Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar).

With the backing of the President Enrique Peña Nieto and his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the special commissioner for the Security and Development of Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo, has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy to suppress the autodefensas after their advances against the cartel threatened state and federal power structures.

In early May, Castillo introduced a newly created rural police force to the people of Tierra Caliente. According to the government, the new force would be composed of autodefensa members, replacing their independent groupings, and bringing them within the framework of the rule of law.

Autodefensas on patrol in Michoacán
Autodefensas on patrol in Michoacán (Ignacio Juarez)

However, Mireles and others associated with the autodefensas recognized the move as a strategy to divide the self-defense groups. The rural police have been outfitted with a few rounds of ammunition, an AR-15 and half-a-dozen small Nissan pick-up trucks--with which they are supposed to combat criminals who possess military-grade weapons and brand-new SUVs.

Although the government's strategy didn't work out entirely, it did confuse and demoralize the autodefensas of Tierra Caliente.

FOR HIS part, Mireles sought to deepen support for the autodefensas with activists and civil society organizations. In late May, he spoke in Mexico City at a series of forums organized by a group of Mexican political figures critical of the government's inaction in the face of the insecurity sweeping Mexico.

In his speeches, Mireles accused the federal government of pitting different forces against each other to divide the movement, and of carrying out a media campaign to pretend that peace had returned to Michoacán. Also attending these meetings was the outspoken Catholic priest and human rights advocate Alejandro Solalinde.

During his speech, Solalinde criticized the Mexican government and the social inequality that has plagued the country:

In a country like ours, the question of security has become fundamental. Everyone--except, of course, that privileged 10 percent--is exposed to active and passive violence from politicians and criminals. We are used to kidnappings, muggings, extortions, human trafficking, murders and the abuse of power. The Mexican state has been overcome by crime and corruption. It is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to protect its citizens...

The rich defend themselves, they live in gated communities with security guards, they have bodyguards and bulletproof cars. They have 600,000 private security guards at their service. Meanwhile, for the rest of the population, there are 45,000 federal police, many of them often involved in criminal activity, corruption and even kidnappings.

Out of these meetings, the Frente Nacional de Autodefensas (Autodefensa National Front) was launched, with a call for Mexicans to participate in "non-violent, self-defense" campaigns to clear out corruption from their towns and cities.

However, beyond a loose affiliation through the #TodosSomosAutodefensas (we are all autodefensas) hashtag, it was unclear what the next steps were for those who wanted to become involved in the new movement. Soon after its launch, its organizational force proved negligible. Although the movement enjoyed widespread popular support, organizationally, it remained weak at the national level.

Still, the autodefensas continued to make waves in local politics. In early April, Uriel Chávez, the PRI mayor of Apatzingán, a Templario stronghold, was arrested on charges of extortion and misuse of public funds.

Most importantly, in mid-June, the governor of the state of Michoacán, Fausto Vallejo, also from the PRI, resigned after leaked documents showed his political campaign had been financed by narco money. As if that wasn't enough, leaked photographs circulated in social media showing his son Rodrigo Vallejo, alias "El Gerber," meeting with the leader of the Templarios cartel, Servando Gómez, alias "La Tuta."

Besides shaking up the political establishment, the autodefensas movement also began to put a spotlight on other economic activities controlled by the cartel. In addition to illegal logging, the cartel was linked in several media reports to illegal mines in Western Michoacán, the state of Colima and southern Jalisco. According to the reports, illegal shipments of iron ore would leave the port city of Lazaro Cárdenas, destined for China. In exchange, the cartel would import ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, precursor chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine, from China.

Though this illegal trade was an open secret among inhabitants of Lazaro Cárdenas, it wasn't until the autodefensas began to put pressure on the cartel that the government began to impose restrictions on mining exports.

FOR A while, it seemed that the movement would continue to gain strength with its political and military victories for the people of Tierra Caliente tired of living under the boot of the Templarios. The autodefensas' goal--to clear Michoacán of organized crime--seemed lofty, but more and more attainable.

But Mireles and his movement began to pose a threat to the PRI power structure, and their refusal to lay down their weapons or cut a deal made them a thorn in the side of the government.

On June 17, while he was training new self-defense groups in the costal town of La Mira, near Lazaro Cárdenas, Mireles was arrested by army and police forces, together with 82 autodefensa members. Government authorities accused him of drug possession and possessing military-grade weapons.

These are, of course, fabricated charges--though no drugs were found at the time of Mireles' arrest, ensuing police reports already accused him of drug possession. Mireles' lawyers point out that other autodefensas charged with the same violations have been pardoned and released by state authorities. The case of Mireles is being treated differently, however--as an outspoken and irreverent leader of the autodefensas, he has continually challenged the government and its strategy to "appease" Michoacán.

Immediately after Mireles' arrest, demonstrations and highway blockades erupted around Mexico. But the government is intent on keeping him imprisoned, despite the outcry. Soon after his arrest, Mireles was transferred to the maximum-security prison in Hermosillo, Sonora. Upon arrival, his head and signature mustache were shaved off by prison authorities, rendering him almost unrecognizable to supporters. In solidarity, his lawyer, Talía Vázquez shaved her head. Since then, many public shavings took place in solidarity with Mireles.

It remains to be seen whether a campaign to win freedom for Mireles and other political prisoners can take hold. Mexico's social movements and left remain weak and fragmented. Plus, the upheaval over energy "reform" legislation that will give foreign multinationals new access to Mexico's oil and natural gas resources has drawn national attention away from the autodefensas.

Nevertheless, activists in Tierra Caliente, Mexico City and beyond are continuing to organize. On August 21, supporters of Mireles and others are planning a day of action to demand freedom for political prisoners.

LOOKING BACK at the developments of the past few months, it's clear that the Mexican political establishment sided with the cartel and against the autodefensas. The Templario's leader "La Tuta," for example, is still at large.

As for the autodefensas, though armed, they pursued a strategy to remain within a constitutional framework in an attempt to escape government persecution. However, as Alejandro Solalinde, the human rights advocate, has said, in Mexico, "the rule of law only exists in the discourse of politicians and benefits only a handful."

So for working class Mexicans who seek to protect themselves and their families, a dilemma remains: If you defend yourself, the government will suppress you, and if you don't defend yourself, you will be subject to abuse, extortion and worse at the hands of criminals and their political enablers.

Although the situation that led to the rise of the autodefensas of Tierra Caliente isn't widespread in other parts of the country, it isn't uncommon either. And with the neoliberal economic "reforms" being ratified by the Mexican government, we can only expect further imiseration in a country where 50 percent of the population already lives below the poverty line.

Add to this the draconian policies of the U.S. government on immigration, border militarization and the drug war--all presided over by Barack Obama--and you have a situation that becomes more and more unbearable by the day.

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