What lies ahead for Michoacán?

April 17, 2014

Héctor A. Rivera reports on new developments for the self-defense groups in Mexico that are fighting not only crime cartels but threatened repression by the state.

SINCE THE signing of an eight-point agreement in early February, relations between the federal government and the autodefensas (self-defense groups) of Tierra Caliente have been continually strained.

The autodefensas have suffered important setbacks in their struggle against organized crime in Tierra Caliente, a territory in the western state of Michoacán. Infiltration into their ranks as well as competing cartels are jeopardizing the gains that they have made.

While there have been significant advances against the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) crime cartel, the government's renewed pressure on the Coordinadora de los Autodefensas de Michoacán to disarm has led to a political impasse.

However, in recent negotiations with the federal government, the autodefensas did secure some of their demands, including a promise to release detained autodefensas, legalization of self-defense groups, and more support from the federal government and armed forces in protecting their communities against organized crime.

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

In the political arena, the autodefensa movement has been making waves through local and state politics and forcing people to take sides in the struggle between the Templarios and the autodefensas. Recent confrontations at town council meetings over diverted salaries to support the cartel show how the autodefensa movement has emboldened residents to challenge cartel power in local government. These developments are a further sign of destabilization of Templario power in Apatzingán--historically, a Templario stronghold.

In addition, the arrests of government functionaries Jésus Reyna García and José Trinidad Martínez Pasalagua have weakened Templario influence at the state level. Ongoing investigations revealed that both high-ranking officials were on the payroll of the cartel. The investigations also suggest the Templarios funded the political campaigns of Institutional Revolutionary Party candidates in state elections, and that the son of the current governor of Michoacán, Rodrigo Vallejo Mora, alias "El Gerber," is also a member of the cartel.

Other important developments include the killing of two cartel leaders by the Mexican Army and Mexican Marines--Nazario Moreno González, alias "El Chayo," and Enrique Plancarte Solís, alias "El Kike," These deaths and the arrests of Reyna and Pasalagua significantly weaken the Templarios' political power.

Nevertheless, Servando Gómez Martínez, alias "La Tuta," a well-known Templario leader, remains at large, and the Templarios and their allies still occupy important positions at various levels of government in the state of Michoacán. To the autodefensas, it is clear that as long as the cartel and its allies control local and state posts, resources and funding coming from the federal government into municipal coffers will continue to be used to fund criminal activities.

THE RISING influence of the autodefensas, however, hasn't gone unchallenged. A series of events during the month of March point to a coordinated smear campaign to discredit and weaken the autodefensa movement.

For example, the news outlet Revolución 3.0 reported that residents in Michoacán received telephone calls for a survey conducted by a polling agency called the Mexico City Institute of Public Opinion. Further research revealed that this was a fake polling institute--and closer inspection of the questionnaire shows it was intended to slander the autodefensas, not gather public opinion.

The survey, for example, asks "questions" such as: "Did you already know that the autodefensas are asking for help from anarchist groups to take over Morelia, the capital of [Michoacán]?"; "Did you already know that the autodefensas possess very expensive, high-caliber weapons that are generally used by criminals?"; and "Did you already know that municipal personnel have been threatened to be killed or buried alive if they don't support the autodefensas?"

People who received the calls were also asked if they "agree or disagree that autodefensas should seek support from groups and agitators such as anarchists and guerrillas to take over cities and municipalities throughout Michoacán."

Despite such tactics, the autodefensas still enjoy widespread support locally, nationally and among immigrant communities in the U.S. Throughout California--especially in San José, where a large immigrant population from Tierra Caliente resides--community groups headed by women continue to organize fundraising meetings to support the autodefensas back home.

The biggest setbacks for the autodefensas movement include the arrests of two of their leaders on trumped-up charges.

On March 20, a local judge ruled that there was enough evidence to prove that Hipólito Mora, a leader from La Ruana, was responsible for the murder of two autodefensas from the town of Buenavista.

The autodefensas from La Ruana deny these accusations and charge that the leader of the autodefensas from Buenavista, Luis Antonio Torres González, alias "El Americano," is a Templario who infiltrated the autodefensa movement with some of his people.

In February, Mora had successfully expropriated lemon and avocado plantations when the Templarios were expelled from La Ruana. Sales from the expropriated plantations have been used to finance the autodefensa movement in the region. Mora's arrest took place just as lemon and lime prices skyrocketed in Mexico and the international market. The loss of these plantations would cut off an important stream of money for the autodefensas.

Since the arrest of Mora, supporters of El Americano--organized in a group called "H3," named after the Hummer 3--have been patrolling entry points to La Ruana and challenging the rule of the autodefensas. In recent days, rumors coming out of La Ruana indicate that the H3 group is preparing an armed assault to expel the autodefensas. Last weekend, a general assembly meeting in La Ruana ended with accusations from supporters of both sides.

Another setback for the autodefensas was the arrest of Enrique Hernández Saucedo, the autodefensa leader of the town of Yurécuaro, who is accused of participating in the murder of the mayor of Tanhuato. According to autodefensa leaders, these are also trumped-up charges--they suspect Hernández Saucedo is currently being held incommunicado because he intercepted Templario payrolls containing the names of state senators and town mayors throughout Michoacán.

On April 14, the Attorney General's Office formally accused 17 autodefensas from Yurécuaro of terrorist activities. This sets a serious and alarming precedent since it's the first time that these accusations are brought against autodefensa groups.

BECAUSE OF all this, cooperation between the government and the autodefensas under the agreement from early February has remained strained. The federal government has attempted to disarm the autodefensas at every turn, through negotiations or intimidation--meanwhile, despite the central role of the autodefensas in the fight against the Templarios, the government refuses to credit their involvement in recent setbacks for the cartel.

In fact, earlier in April, Alfredo Castillo, the federal commissioner coordinating the federal government's intervention in Tierra Caliente, declared that in light of the killing and arrest of Templario leaders, the autodefensas need to disarm. Castillo unilaterally set a deadline of May 10 for disarmament.

Dr. José Manuel Mireles, spokesperson for the autodefensas, rejected disarmament and instead called on the government to legalize the autodefensas and to release more than 100 members jailed by the government since the beginning of its campaign in Tierra Caliente earlier this year.

Noting the increasing presence of other cartels moving into Michoacán to fill the power vacuum left by the Templarios, Mireles declared in a radio interview:

We are afraid of a fusion of cartels that plan to take over Michoacán because we know that they will kill everyone in the movement. It seems that the federal government doesn't care about that. But that is why we cannot turn in our weapons until organized crime has been wiped out of Michoacán.

Once this happens, and law and order is reestablished in Michoacán, just like [Mexico's President Enrique] Peña Nieto says, we won't need anyone to disarm us. We will lay down our weapons on our own. We are all productive working people here in Tierra Caliente.

Noting the increased presence of the Army and Marines, Mireles said that the autodefensas, while not equipped to confront the armed forces, would do so anyway if they have to:

We don't want confrontations with the government and the military. Our war was never against the federal government, the Army or the Marines, much less with the people of the state of Michoacán. But if these are their intentions, for us, it's the same to die fighting them or fighting the Templarios. If they want to disarm us so that the Templarios kill us unarmed, we prefer then to die fighting.

THE LATEST talks between the autodefensas and the government--on April 14, 22 autodefensa representatives from Tierra Caliente, headed by Mireles, met with Alfredo Castillo--appear to have de-escalated the conflict.

According to La Jornada, the mainstream media are attempting to portray the agreement about weapons between the two sides as disarmament. But autodefensa supporters say the agreement specifies only that weapons in their possession will be registered, not given up--though the understanding is that they will be taken out of use. A spokesperson for the group, Estanislao Beltrán, insisted that this "isn't a disarmament, it's legalization."

In addition to their continued incorporation into rural guards, the autodefensas' agreement with the government allows civilians to create self-defense groups to safeguard their communities--they have until May 11 to register as rural police. It's unclear how the government will react to the formation of more groups, but the case of Yurécuaro shows there's no guarantee they will respond positively.

Meanwhile, one important concession from the government is a promise to begin releasing more than 100 members of the autodefensas who have been detained. A date for the release has yet to be announced.

The latest agreements are similar to ones reached in early February, and it remains to be seen if the government will follow. The May 10 deadline (Mother's Day in Mexico) gives the autodefensas another month to continue their fight against organized crime, now with further support from the federal government, according to the agreement.

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