Self Defense Against Drug Cartels or the Mexican Government in Michoacán?

Líderes de los grupos de autodefensa en la entrada de Churumuco, un municipio del estado de Michoacán. El grupo ha tomado las armas para protegerse de los carteles de la droga y las pandillas que operan en la zona.Foto de Armando Solís, 29 de diciembre 2013, copyright Demotix

Leaders of self-defense groups at the entrance to Churumuco, a municipality in the state of Michoacán. The group has taken up arms to defend themselves from drug cartels and gangs that operate in the area. Photo by Armando Solís, Dec. 29 2013, copyright Demotix

In an attempt to restore peace in the state of Michoacán, the Mexican government has sent the military to disarm the groups of armed citizens, better known as “self-defenders”, who have taken up arms against organized crime to defend their land, their work, and their families.

The violence is nothing new in Michoacán. For several years this state in western Mexico has suffered the consequences of the lack of security due to the presence of drug cartels and the absence of any authority that can effectively protect its citizens. Added to this is the constant presence of armed forces for the so-called “war on drugs“, initiated by the ex-President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa  and continued by the current President Enrique Peña Nieto, which has not been able to prevent the traffickers from extorting, intimidating, kidnapping and raping the population. All of these factors have fueled the group of self-defenders.

While the civilian forces are operating within the law, the recent effort to disarm these groups by the military is a milestone that could change the course of the armed conflict.

The blog “Hazme el Chingado Favor” [es] sums up the government’s recent action:

Así las cosas finalmente el Secretario de Gobernación vuelve anunciar que se va combatir la inseguridad y se manda al ejército. Se anuncia con bombo y platillo que se dedicaran 250 millones de pesos para reforzar el programa de Prevención del Delito una cifra risible cuando se considera que tan solo para ganar las elecciones del 2012 el PRI regalo 701 millones de pesos en tarjetas Monex… ¡HECF!

So finally the Interior Secretary announces again that it is going to combat the insecurity and sends the army. It was announced with great fanfare that $250 million pesos [approximately US $19 million] would be dedicated to strengthen the Crime Prevention program, a laughable figure when you consider that just to win the 2012 elections, the PRI gave out $701 million pesos [almost US $53 million] in Monex gifts cards…

Twitter user and blogger Mauricio Ceballos [es] blames the politicians for the state in which Michoacán finds itself:

All the political parties, and politics in general in Mexico, are responsible for the situation Michoacán is in.

While the Twitter account ‘No más corrupción’ (“No more corruption”) published this drawing summarizing the situation:

The sad new map of Michoacán thanks to the inability of the government to bring security to the population

And others simply call it a civil war:

Don’t be afraid of the words, Michoacán is in a civil war.

With regard to the raid by federal forces in the area known as Tierra Caliente, the priests have made themselves heard—as they have done in other conflicts, like the Zapatista movement—with strong criticism of the government. The Bishop of Apatzingán, Miguel Patiño Velázquez, wrote an open letter [es] published on the Animal Político website. An excerpt follows:

Los hechos recientes, de este nuevo año 2014, han llenado de indignación a nuestro pueblo al cerciorarse de que ni los políticos, ni el gobierno dan muestras de querer solucionar el problema de Tierra Caliente. En lugar de buscar a los criminales que dañan a la comunidad, el ejército mexicano, por órdenes superiores, fue a desarmar a las autodefensas de Nueva Italia y Antúnez agrediendo a gente indefensa con el resultado de tres hombres muertos. La situación se les salió de control y al verse rodeados por la población comenzaron a disparar, primero al aire y después a las personas. […] Apatzingán está desde el viernes pasado hundida en el miedo y la zozobra. […] los enviados del crímen organizado quemaron autobuses, tráilers y camiones de carga sin que los federales ni los militares lo impidieran.  El crímen organizado sigue obligando a la gente a asistir a sus manifestaciones, sus líderes están plenamente identificados y no hay autoridad que los pare. […] El pueblo está exigiendo al gobierno que primero agarren y desarmen al crímen organizado. El ejército y el gobierno han caído en el descrédito porque en lugar de perseguir a los criminales han agredido a las personas que se defienden de ellos. ¿No han comprendido que nos encontramos en un “Estado de necesidad”?

The recent events of this new year of 2014 filled our people with indignation to realize that neither the politicians nor the government show signs of wanting to solve the Tierra Caliente problem. Instead of looking for criminals who harm the community, the Mexican army, on orders from above, went to disarm the self-defense groups of Nueva Italia and Antúnez, leaving the people defenseless which resulted in the deaths of three men. The situation got out of their control and seeing themselves surrounded by people they opened fire, first in the air and then at people. […] Since last Friday, Apatzingán is mired in fear and anxiety. […] The envoys from organized crime burned buses, trailers and cargo trucks without the federal police or military doing anything to stop them. […] Organized crime continues to force people to attend their events, their leaders are fully identified and there is no authority to stop them. […] The people demand that the government first catch and disarm the criminals. The military and government are becoming completely discredited because instead of pursuing criminals they have attacked people who are defending others. Do they not understand that we are in a ‘state of necessity’?

Father Gregorio López, in charge of the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción parish of the same diocese, went ever farther in an interview with Red Noticiero quoted by the digital daily Sin Embargo [es] where he mentions the main bosses of the Templar Knights cartel by name, and accuses the government of knowing their whereabouts and protecting them:

Nazario Moreno ayer comió con ‘La Tuta’ [Servando Gómez Martínez] en un rancho que se llama La Cucha, aquí a unos kilómetros de Apatzingán, y el gobierno lo sabía. […] La estrategia de enviar fuerzas federales a Apatzingán, Michoacán, es “una farsa, un teatro” porque incluso los elementos de la Policía Federal (PF) reciben su nómina del crimen organizado y el gobierno federal y estatal lo saben.

Yesterday Nazario Moreno ate with ‘La Tuta’ [Servando Gómez Martínez] at a ranch called the La Cucha, a few kilometers from Apatzingán and the government knew it. […] The strategy of sending federal forces to Apatzingán, Michoacán, is a “charade, it’s theater” because even members of the Federal Police get their pay from organized crime and the state and federal governments know it.

Many Twitter users share the priests’ point of view:

The Michoacan self-defenders are defending from kidnapping and extortion, Sr. Vallejo is defending the Templars.

Self-defense groups are the people defending their lives and their families. It’s criminal that the military is supporting the Templars in Michoacán.

Others went so far as to say that the “self-defenders” could be the start of a revolution:

#Yosoy132 [note: student movement] was chaos at the national level and it was peaceful; armed self-defense groups in Michoacán are going to be a revolution.

The actions of the federal forces caused doubt among netizens about the true reasons for disarming the ‘self-defenders’.

It doesn’t suit the government for us to attack their drug business, so they want to disarm the people.

On the other hand, several have expressed doubt about the financing and origin of the ‘self-defenders’:

It shouldn’t be possible for groups of dubious origin and sophisticated weaponry like the ‘self-defenders’ to be considered heroes by [journalist Carmen] Aristegui.

The self-defense groups, however, are gaining support from the public, mainly through actions like the one reported by the magazine Proceso: “Self-defense groups returned 265 hectares (654 acres) to their owners that the traffickers had taken from them.”

It’s not about making the self-defense groups of Michoacan martyrs or heroes, but as a group of human beings, they are a lot more respectable than the Mexican government.

For those interested in knowing more about the reasons that led to the creation of the self-defense group and its history, José Manuel Mireles, their leader, explains them in this interview [es].

[Translator's note: This interview is in Spanish. Here is another longer interview with subtitles in English, including one with Dr. Mireles on the same theme:]

To follow the latest events, follow the hashtags #Michoacán, #autodefensas y #MichoacánEnGuerra on Twitter.


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