In the Fog: The Struggle for Power, Territory, and Justice in the Mexican State of Michoacán

Although in Mexican law it is illegal for citizens to bear most firearms, especially those of military grade and caliber, the self-defense groups adamantly declare that it is their right to protect themselves and their communities against equally armed criminal groups. “We are doing nothing wrong, we are protecting the people, people who are tired of injustice and organized crime,” said Estanislao Beltrán Torres, one of the movement leaders, in an interview with the newspaper Milenio.

Photo by  Omar Sánchez de Tagle. ( the past several weeks, the national and international press has been swarming in the Mexican state of Michoacán as armed clashes have erupted between members of the Knights Templar drug cartel, armed civilians, and security forces of the federal police and army in the region known as Tierra Caliente.

Much of the coverage depicts a scene where local townspeople, fed up by a decade of cartel threats, extortions, kidnappings, murders, along with corruption by municipal and state authorities, have taken up arms to restore security and peace in their communities.

However, some analysts suggest that the lines and intentions are much blurrier, with the state deliberately whacking the hornet’s nest to wrestle a stake in control over the flow of capital generated by criminal and illicit business ventures.

Background and Context

Michoacán was the first state to see military intervention when then-president Felipe Calderon (of the conservative PAN party) deployed soldiers across the country in a strategy to crack down on cartels in 2006.

Instead of reducing the presence of organized crime, the strategy apparently backfired, pitching the country into levels of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 80,000 (many being civilian victims), and the multiplication of criminal cartels.

In Michoacán, it was the infamously brutal Zetas cartel, its founders, defectors of an elite Mexican military anti-narcotics force partially trained by the U.S., that exercised control throughout the state from 2002 until 2006 when the Familia, another cartel, made its appearance to contest their power. The Familia, seeking to gain a social base, declared that it was going to protect the civilian population, rid the territory of other cartels, and restore justice to the state based on cult-like christian principles.

In 2010, after the apparent death of its founder in a two day shoot out with the Mexican army, the Familia dissolved and re-emerged as the Knights Templar cartel.

The Knights Templar quickly intensified the number of extortions, kidnappings, and murders, targeting everyone from wealthy local businessmen to farm-workers.

“They don’t show up with a pistol in their hand, but they make it very clear that there is no other option: you either work with them or face the consequences,” said a local businessman in an interview with El Pais.

However, as the cartel, with its stronghold in the Apatzingán municipality of the Tierra Caliente region, over-extended its use of violence and the application of quotas on almost all forms of economic activity in the state, local populations began to lose fear and began to organize armed self-defense groups.

Citizen Self-Defense Groups

“They would show up at your house and say: ‘I really like your woman, I’ll bring her back soon’,” Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a community physician turned leader of the citizen self-defense groups, has recalled frequently in interviews with various media outlets. Mireles has said that he attended to more than 40 pregnancies of girls who were raped by cartel members in 2012 alone, “only girls who were between 11 and 14, the oldest being 14.”

These rapes were the last straw for many.

In February 2013, Mireles along with a group of ranchers, local businessmen, and farm-workers armed themselves with hunting and sport rifles, machetes, and farm tools, and took over two town halls controlled by the Knights Templar. This would spark a wave of other citizen uprisings against the cartels and local authorities in collusion with the crime syndicate.

In recent months, the self-defense groups have exponentially expanded, boasting that they can call upon more than “25,000 armed” citizens to combat all forms of organized crime in the state.

Although in Mexican law it is illegal for citizens to bear most firearms, especially those of military grade and caliber, the self-defense groups adamantly declare that it is their right to protect themselves and their communities against equally armed criminal groups.

“We are doing nothing wrong, we are protecting the people, people who are tired of injustice and organized crime,” said Estanislao Beltrán Torres, one of the movement leaders, in an interview with the newspaper Milenio.

On January 12, some 200 of their members armed with high-powered automatic weapons and wearing bulletproof vests entered the city of Apatzingán to rid the Knights Templar from their stronghold.

Gregorio Lopez, the head priest of the Apatzingán diocese, has said in a public statement that “there are many businessmen that were forced out of the area that are financing them [self-defense groups]…they are people who had their ranches or property stolen, and they are paying with very good weapons.”

Now the self-defense groups are celebrating the reclamation of this stolen property.

After the assault on Apatzingán and other actions over the past several months, the groups reported that they have reclaimed and returned more than 265 hectares of farmland and property to their original owners, declaring that in just a few months they have achieved “what the government has been unable to do for 12 years.”

The Strategies of the Federal Government and the Spoils of War

Since the public appearance of the self-defense groups, the PRI-controlled federal government took a position of at least tacit, if not explicit support of them. In October of 2013, the attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, met with the leader of the self-defense groups, Jose Mireles in what appeared to be an invitation to help.

After that meeting, leaders of the self-defense groups admitted in interviews that the military and federal police supported their activities. “We appreciate the fact that the military and Federal Police have worked with us, we appreciate their commanders for their support,” said Beltran Torres.

However, after the assault and violence on Apatzingán, the federal government publicly shifted its stance and sent more than 2,000 members of the army and Federal Police to “disarm” the self-defense groups on January 13.

At least one clash occurred during the disarmament attempt, leaving 4 reportedly dead.

With these changes in attitude by the government, it appears that its overall strategy is one that is contradictory and erratic. The Americas Director of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said in a statement, “It seems the government has been learning along the way, improvising the details of their approach against a very serious situation.”

Yet, other analysts suggest that the government’s intentions may be more sinister, “experimenting” with a strategy to destabilize Michoacán so as to militarize and para-militarize the region and to monopolize a stake on control over resources, territory, and the profits of illicit (and legitimate) markets.

In an interview with the online magazine Desinformémonos, respected analyst, professor and journalist, Carlos Fazio said, “In Mexico there is a molecular civil war occurring where armed groups are sent to clash with one another, but as part of state policy. At its heart, everything has to do with a war over territory and strategic resources.”

While historically the drug cartels of the region banked primarily off of the growth, production, and sale of marijuana and then later synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines (being the number one supplier to the US), they have now expanded into many other profitable industries of the state, dramatically expanding their power and influence.

Seventy-two percent of all avocado plantations in Mexico are located in Michoacán and 80 percent of avocado imports to the US come from these plantations. Those numbers translate into an annual billion-dollar industry, with cartels taking more and more of the cut.

At first they would extort or kidnap plantation owners, but later they began to take over and run the plantations and supply chains themselves.

Furthermore, there is a lucrative iron mining industry, exporting more than four million tons of iron ore each year to China, with the Knights Templar controlling the major port of Lazaro Cardenas and also at least 50 percent of the mining industry.

Profits are also made from the sex industry, human trafficking, real estate, removal of toxic waste, illegal logging, the theft of oil and gas, as well as pirated and black-marketed goods.

“What we are talking about is a criminal economy that is intertwined with businesses and I fear that there are businessmen that have armed groups and who are colluding with state functionaries,” said Fazio in his interview with Desinformémonos. “In the official discourse everything centers on the Knights Templars, New Generation Jalisco [another cartel] and the self-defense groups, but they never talk about the politicians, businessmen, bankers and customs agents; that is, the entire government and economic structure that has to do with the import-export of different products from the national economy through the port city of Lazaro Cardenas.”

Before Calderon’s war strategy on the cartels, the PRI government that ruled Mexico for 71 years managed to keep cartel and crime related violence at a minimum, notably through negotiating and cooperating with organized crime in exchange for certain economic benefits from their activities.

Many view the current PRI government, headed by President Enrique Peña Nieto, as falling back into that old direction.

At the beginning of Nieto’s presidency in 2012, many journalists and security analysts wrote about the ties between the government and Mexico’s most powerful cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, bossed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guazman.

El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel have been able to wrangle control over many contested areas from other cartels, later producing certain degrees of stability in those regions.

The analysts argue that an alliance between Nieto and El Chapo would help to produce in the long run a degree of stability and mutual economic benefit – the old ways of the PRI.

What does this alliance have to do with Michoacán?

Many critics of the self-defense groups, as well as leaked information by the government, paint these groups as being supported by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel that seeks to assume control over Michoacán. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is also the armed wing of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel. However, the self-defense groups vehemently deny support from any cartel and maintain the position that they are out to rid the state of all organized crime.

The Naranjo Hypothesis

In June 2012, then presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto announced that one of his central “external” security advisors would be the former Colombian general Oscar Naranjo.

Naranjo rose to controversial fame as being the Colombian commander to dismantle the infamous Medellin cartel and for his role in the capture or death of almost every major cartel leader in the country, including Pablo Escobar.

He went from police chief to four star general before retiring in 2012, and at one point commanded more than 170,000 police.

On the other hand, Naranjo also gained fame for the application of a reported security strategy wrought with dark alliances with paramilitaries and even drug cartels, and a spotty if not blood stained human rights record.

During his tenure as a commander in Cali, Colombia, various reports claimed that he would incorporate mass illegal detentions as a way to gain access and information on his foes. Other reports suggested that as a way to weaken the Medellin cartel, Naranjo would make alliances with the Cali cartel and recruit individuals who would go on to create right-wing paramilitary groups.

It is this past that has some in Mexico, including officials of opposition political parties, hinting at or outright stating that Naranjo has an influence over the current federal government strategy in Michoacán, especially when it comes to its support of the self-defense groups.

Yet, others view the accusations as having little strong evidence and may be the result of opposition political parties seeking to disqualify the governing PRI and gain political points.

Human Rights Watch’s Vivanco said in his statement on Michoacán, “It seems to me that these accusation are not only unfounded but also absurd. I have seen no type of evidence to suggest that the general Oscar Naranjo is involved in this phenomenon…It seems that Mexican politicians should examine thoroughly and search for the real causes (of the violence) at the local level and design or cooperate in the design of a policy that is based on public security.”

While much of these hypotheses of alliances and strategies may fall into categories of speculation, the best information for those covering and analyzing the events in Michoacán is mostly just that, speculation.

One thing is very clear: that almost everything is blurry and in a fog of uncertainty. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that many elements and participants of the self-defense groups legitimately seek to reclaim social peace.

As one leader of the self-defense groups, Luis Antonio Torres, has said, “we are not paramilitaries, we are working people and we have helped to liberate our towns. The government or any cartel doesn’t support us. If the people from Jalisco [Jalisco New Generation] want to do so, we will also fight them because we don’t want any cartel.”