Narcos, Self-Defense Groups and the Mexican Government


 By: Luis Hernández Navarro

Dr. José Manuel Mireles, a leader of the Self-Defen se Groups in Michoacán

Dr. José Manuel Mireles, a leader of the Self-Defen se Groups in Michoacán

To disarm or not to disarm, at the heart of the current dispute in Michoacán. The United States pressures (Mexico) to demobilize the autodefensas (as the armed civilian self-defense groups are referred to in Mexico), the federal government summons them to relinquish their weapons and autodefensas demand that, before delivering one single gun, the authorities comply with a series of conditions. The three have put their ultimatums on the table. May 10 is the zero hour.

The pulse-rate has been rising since the beginning of the year. On January 9, the US State Department warned “its citizens about the risks of traveling in Mexico due to threats to integrity and security that transnational criminal organizations (TCO) represent in that country. US citizens have been the targets of violence, like kidnapping, assault and robbery at the hands of TCOs in various states.” Michoacán was burning.

The government response was quick. Five days after the US communication, the Secretary of Governance (Interior Minister), Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, summoned the self-defense groups to return to their places of origin and reincorporate into their daily activities, while federal forces, in coordination with state authorities, were put in charge of the security and protection of Tierra Caliente’s residents.

The armed civilians didn’t pay much attention. On January 12, after a two-hour fight, they took over the community of Nueva Italia, a critical point in the offensive against los caballeros templarios. One of the fightersthat participated in the battle turned to the Secretary of Governance: “Let Osorio Chong come to disarm us (…). He’s never going to come but may attempt it” (El Universal, 14/1/14).

One who understands well and speaks few words. So that there is no doubt about the message from Uncle Sam, on January 17, one week after the alert to its citizens about Mexico, Secretary of State, John Kerry, said he was “worried” about the emergence of militias to combat the Michoacán narcotraficantes and prepared to try being useful in any way possible.

Stability in Michoacán is important to Washington. Since that Mexican state divides one of the key corridors for the transport of merchandise between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, formed by the stem from the Port Lázaro Cárdenas and the Kansas City Railroad. A privileged trade with China has been established from there. Two of every three avocados that are consumed in the United States are grown in Michoacán and exported, principally by six big transnational packing companies with US capital. The Michoacanos are the second largest community of Mexicans on the other side of the Río Bravo; 4 million live there and send more than two billion dollars per year to their state.

On February 27, one month after Kerry’s statements, the annual report that Washington elaborates on human rights in the world warned about the “worrisome proliferation” of self-defense groups in several states of the Mexican Republic, especially in Guerrero and Michoacán.

Despite seeing some incongruences in the admonition of Uncle Sam, José Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch (HRW), saluted the document: It seems to me –he affirmed– that the report on the point about the autodefensas, which reflects in trustworthy terms the growth of this phenomenon and the vacillating and contradictory attitude of the Mexican Executive, is unobjectionable.” “The autodefensas –he added weeks later– are a cancer that Colombia has suffered for several decades. It is very easy to fall into this kind of model where a Frankenstein is generated that no government can control afterwards.” [1]

The issue was a motive for concern not only for the Obama administration, but also for the big foreign investors. That was clear on January 23 at the World Economic Forum at Davos, when the ghost of the armed civilian groups in Michoacán appeared to President Enrique Peña Nieto. The president, who arrived at the annual fiesta of the Masters of the Universe presuming to approve a new cycle of neoliberal reforms, when he butted heads with Klaus Schwab, executive president of the Forum, over questions about the armed civilian groups. The president answered by offering to incorporate the autodefensas into security tasks (La Jornada, 1/24/14).

He then began a concealed bid to demobilize the militias and oblige them to put down their weapons, which quickly provoked strong clashes. On February 14, in the community of Antúnez, the Army killed three civilians that resisted being disarmed. The federal government saw itself obligated to postpone the measure. The issue has been a motive for permanent conflicts and a flood of statements from public officials, announcing the imminence and obligatory nature of the measure.

On April 6, the autodefensas responded by marching into 15 towns and organizing a motorized caravan. Through the voice of Doctor Mireles, they again said that they cannot be disarmed. “Without weapons any fool on a bicycle will kill us,” the spokesperson said in the community of Nuevo Urecho. Simultaneously they increased their demands: the freedom of at least 100 of their prisoner compañeros; eliminating or arresting 20 mid-level Templario commanders; legalizing and granting a legal personality to the autodefensas; integrating its members into the state police and restoring the state of law in Michoacán. They set the time period for having favorable solutions as Mothers Day (May 10th in Mexico).

The violent clash between the autodefensas and the federal government seems more probable every day. The three ultimatums on the table are the third call that it announced.


Translator’s Note:

[1] The issue of the self-defense groups (also referred to in Spanish as comunitarios or autodefensas) must be understood within its local context. These groups are not, as HRW is quoted as suggesting in this article, the same as the autodefensas of Colombia, who fight against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The autodefensas of Michoacán fight against an organized crime group called the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios). Here is what one trustworthy source from Mexico says about the Templarios:

“When it comes to states such as Michoacán however, somehow the mainstream media, academia, and many solidarity activists have ignored the paramilitary tendencies of organized crime cartels.  The people of Michoacán have struggled to survive and persevere in the face of a violent onslaught by three different cartels: La Familia Michoacana, the Zetas, and now the Knights Templar.  Michoacán is known worldwide for marijuana cultivation and trafficking, but with a growing trend towards marijuana decriminalization and legalization in the United States of America, today the Knights Templar cartel has now diversified into the production and trafficking of methamphetamine.  In a globalized marketplace for cheap labor, land, and natural resources, cartels throughout Mexico have also diversified into a much more profitable industry, which is the use of coercion through violence in order to gain territorial control.  Today the Knights Templar cartel continues to harvest terror with the precision of a military death squad and engages in an international drug smuggling operation. The cartel, however, has also quietly been engaging in private security roles in the interest of illegal natural resource extraction strategies employed by corporations, banks, and political oligarchies.”


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

En español:





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