Two Years of the Autodefensas Movement in Michoacán, Mexico: Persecution and Politics

Two years ago, citizens  of the Mexican state of Michoacán, rose up in armed resistance against the Knights Templar cartel. Sick of the violence, the abuses and the indifference and complicity with which the authorities were treating the narcotraffickers, the citizens decided to solve the problems that none of the three levels of government: municipal, state and federal, had dared to confront up to that date. The Self-Defenses of Michoacán had been born. Two years later, the future of Michoacán and the Autodefensas [Self-Defenses] Movement remains in question.

On February 24, 2013, the citizens of the municipality of Tecalpatepec, in the heart of the Tierra Caliente region of the Mexican state of Michoacán, rose up in armed resistance against the Caballeros Templarios [Knights Templar] cartel. Sick of the violence, the abuses and the indifference and complicity with which the authorities were treating the narcotraffickers, the citizens decided to solve the problems that none of the three levels of government: municipal, state and federal, had dared to confront up to that date. The Autodefensas [Self-Defenses] of Michoacán had been born.

The news spread quickly, and in fewer than three months the municipalities of Buenavista Tomatlán, Coalcomán de Vásquez Pallares and Apatzingán de la Constitución, members of the regions of Tierra Caliente and Sierra-Costa also rose up. 2013 was, on the side of the citizens, a year of confrontations against the criminals; on the side of the governments, on the other hand, it was a year of reflection about the possible solutions to this crisis of legitimacy, which put in doubt nothing less than the monopoly of the State over violence.

In January of 2014, after a period of relative calm, the Self-Defense groups rose up again. The problem that the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, had tried to ignore in 2013 re-emerged in an even more urgent way: the fever of the armed fight had spread in the whole area and the municipalities of Meseta Purépecha, in the mountains [Sierra] and the coast [Costa]. Conscious that the armed movement could not be stopped in any way, the federal government launched a series of means to disarticulate it from within: it created a register for citizens who intended to continue fighting the Templars and detained all those who refused to register themselves in this list; it named a special Commissioner for the pacification of the State, Alfred Castillo, an obscure functionary who had never been involved in “Michoacán issues;” it founded a new police body, the Rural Forces, with the objective of coopting the armed citizens, giving them uniforms, and submitting them to the command of the State.

In mid-December, 2014, for the third time, an ample number of “legitimate” Self-Defenses rose up again and, with more than 30 highway blockades, manifested their disagreement with the governmental management of the crisis, demanding the liberation of the more than 400 members of the Self-Defenses that still remain in prison, the exit Commissioner Castillo and the extinction of the Rural Forces, which had soon revealed itself to be a perfect shelter for those ex-Templars intending to continue committing crimes and abuses, only this time with uniforms and permission to carry guns. A little more than a month later, the federal government satisfied two of these three petitions. Never the less, it was done in a way that, for the zillionth time, confirmed to the citizens of this region, the uselessness of turning to the authorities to solve their problems.

If, by the end of December, the Rural Forces had effectively disappeared, it wasn’t because there was an end to the assassinations, massacres and disappearances: according to the statistics of the Secretary of the Government, Michoacán in 2014 continued to occupy the second highest rate of homicides, with 2,634 cases, and was confirmed as one of the 10 states with the highest rates of kidnapping (121 cases) and extortion (275 cases). On the contrary, the Rural Forces was eliminated to permit that the creation of the “sole command,” a pillar of a pending police reform dating from Felipe Calderon’s “War On Narcotraffic” and inherited by Enrique Peña Nieto. The reform hopes to do away with the country’s 1,800 municipal police departments, putting them under the direct control of the state police of each region. The disrepute of many state police entities, like their proven participation in various crimes, causes the population to see the disintegration of the Rural Forces and the activation of “sole command” only as a subsequent re-structuring of special interests and forces in the countryside.

On January 23 of 2015, the second demand of the protesters was satisfied, and Commissioner Castillo resigned from his post. However, the State security passed the post to General Felipe Gurrola Ramírez, a skydiver trained by the “rangers” at Fort Benning, the old School of the Americas. Certainly, when the people of Michoacán asked for the removal of Castillo, they weren’t thinking about replacing him with a general who is a graduate of an institution famous for the training of an ample variety of infamous soldiers throughout Latin America. Moreover, it’s important to point out that Gurrola Ramírez is a right-hand man of the general secretary of the National Defense department, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda who, according to accusations made by none less than the now ex-Attorney General of the Republic, Jesús Murillo Karam, tried to complicate the investigation of the involvement of the army in the disappearance of the student teachers of Ayotzinapa.

Regarding the third demand, the liberation of the imprisoned self-defenders, no progress was made, and it’s no wonder. To understand the jumbled situation in Michoacán, or at least to try to, it’s fundamental, in fact, to return to May of 2014 and explain why some of the members of the Self-Defense movement self-define themselves as “legitimate,” and among them are those who are detained.

Rural Forces and “Legitimate” Self-Defenses

The first action taken by the federal government at the end of January, 2014, was the signing of the Tecalpatepec Agreements, which foresaw an institutionalization of the armed groups through the entrance of their members in the Rural Force, a species of citizen police with equipment provided by the government itself.

There was never any clarity nor uniformity about the training of this entity. It seems that there was a limited capacity, differing from one municipality to another:  in some places those who showed up first were registered, in others, registration was done by nomination. If on one side all the leaders of the various groups made pacts with the government, embroiling themselves in a game of alliances with an unknown direction, the majority of the citizens, who had taken up arms in desperation and rage, rejected this institutionalization and stated their intentions to continue in their work of “cleaning” the state though without legal shelter.

When the new police force was made official in May, the disproportionality between the number of officers and the resources provided to the patrols in the different regions was remarkable and evidently depended on the level of collaboration with the government. In places like the coast, an indigenous Nahua region where the Self-Defenses joined the traditional community police force and always refused to uniform themselves according to federal rulings, there were twenty Rural Forces  recognized; in the Tierra Caliente region, where the government strategy was more successful, there were more than one hundred operations recognized. So, in municipalities like Apatzingán or Buenavista Tomatlán, center of the fertile valley of lemon and avocado groves, and also the production of synthetic drugs, the legalized self-defenses turned out to be many, and almost all of ex-members of organized crime. It didn’t take long for the fight against the Templars to transform itself in a billionth dispute for control of land, and consequently, the citizens who had taken up arms with good intentions kept their distance and started to define themselves as “legitimate,” marking a clear division between who wanted to continue operation for the good of the communities and those who only were looking for personal advantage and moreover, collusion with crime. The movement had been divided, the unity of The Michoacán Self-Defenses was broken.

On the other hand, the intervention of the government revealed itself, month after month, which more than an effective pacification of the State, finalized the elimination of those leaders capable of waking the conscience of the people. Doctor José Manuel Mireles Valverde, charismatic spokesman of the municipality of Tecalpatepec, was detained at the end of June, 2014, charged with carrying arms exclusively used by the army and the possession of drugs, and continues detained in a maximum security prison in the north of the country; Enrique Hernández Salcedo, leader of Yurécuaro, was detained and tortured under charges of having participated in the assassination of a municipal president and was freed only several months later; Felipe Días, one of the leaders from Coalcomán, was ambushed on October 17th by members of his own Rural Force  and died the next day; Hipólito Mora and Luis Antonio Torres Morales, alias el Americano, were involved in a shootout that took place at the end of the past year in the La Ruana land parcel in the municipality of Buenavista, the motivations of which are still unclear, and which caused the death of 11 people and the arrest of both. On February 19th of 2015, another leader of the municipality of Yurécuaro, Javier Bustos Hernández, was “lifted,” tortured and executed by hitmen after having been disarmed by members of the Mexican Army. Of all the charismatic founding personalities of the movement, the only ones left are Semeí Verdía, Nahua commander of the municipality of Aquila, on the Michoacán coast, who by pure chance survived an assassination attempt last December, and Misael González, from Coalcomán, currently running as a presidential candidate for said municipality with the Democratic Revolution Party [Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)]. Adding to the Michoacán mess in 2015 are the elections, which will come to a head in the month of June to re-elect members of the State Congress and elect a new governor. In this way, the interests at play are multiplying and the political use of what remains of the movement of the Self-Defenses is no longer a risk, but rather a fact.

Political Networks, Elections and Restructuring “Michoacán Style”

By the middle of January, 2015, the Institutional Revolutionary Party [Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)] announced their only primary candidate for the Michoacán government: Senator José Ascensión Orihuela Bárcenas, known as “Chon” Orihuela. A few weeks before, Luisa María Calderón, sister of the ex-president Felipe Calderón and Senator for the National Action Party [el Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN)] had registered her candidacy. For the PRD, the president of the Deputies Chamber, Silvano Aureoles announced his intention to run. The Movement of National Regeneration [Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (MORENA)], on the other hand, had given notice in May 2014, that their candidate would be María de la Luz Núñez Ramos. The fight for power in one of the richest and most strategic federal entities in the country is now set in this way: on one side, known names in the Michoacán political panorama (Calderón and Aureolos will compete for the second time, after losing to Fausto Vallejo in November of 2011) and, on the other, with the great unknown of the Self-Defenses movement.

While some of the leaders added themselves to the electoral process, like the already mentioned Misael Gonzalez, others continue with the intention of restructuring and cleaning the State, not only of the Knights Templar, but also of those politicians who have never done anything to resolve the problems of the State, but on the contrary, took advantage of the situation to do business with organized crime.

The platform of the “legitimate” Self-Defenses, headed by the spokesman Jorge Vásquez Valencia, is close to the positions of those who, from various points of view of the country, made a call in December of 2015, to civil society to form a Citizen’s Constitutional Assembly, with the object of creating a new Constitution and the re-founding of Mexico. Many of these people were also present in the founding of the National Movement for the Self-Defenses of the Republic [Movimiento Nacional por las Autodefensas de la República (MNAR)], a non-armed movement supported by representatives of civil society and a part of the political left, that emerged in May of last year, propelled by a few leaders of the Self-Defenses like Dr. Mireles and Hipólito Mora and key figures in the defense of human rights in Mexico, like Father Alejandro Solalinde and Bishop Raúl Vera, now a driving force behind the Constitutional Assembly.

The detention of the principal Michoacán “comandantes” and the tragic events of Ayotzinapa caused, at the end of last year, the state of Guerrero to substitute Michoacán in the first pages of the newspapers and the attention of human rights defenders to change focus. However, the MNAR remains alive, and at the beginning of February linked itself with the students of the Normal de Ayotzinapa to hold joint activities for the “peaceful transformation of the country.” Moreover, on Sunday, February 22, 2015, as a part of the awarding of the “Carlos Montemayor” Prize, which was given to Dr. Mireles and the Michoacán Self-Defenses for their work in social struggle in 2014, the MNAR organized the first Conference for Peace with Justice and Dignity for the State of Michoacán and Mexico, in the Nahua community of Ostula. Of all the “personalities” invited, without a doubt, the only one that attended the event was the PAN candidate Luisa María Calderón Hijonosa, leaving the MNAR’s placement in the political panorama even more confused. Even though the MNAR has declared itself to be non-political and denied having invited ex-senator

Calderón Hijonosa, it does hold among its founders people like Ernesto Ruffo, Governor of the State of Baja California for the PAN, and militants who have declared themselves against the current management of the party, like those of the Communist Party.

As if this panorama weren’t complex enough, on February 27, after living for months hidden in hills and caves all over the state, Servando Gómez Martínez, alias “La Tuta,” and the last leader of the Knights Templar, let himself be caught by the Federal Police in a private house in Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. This detention occurred, according to the “legitimate” Self-Defenses, in the context of a Michoacán land distribution project designed to fake a state of peace in the region. The spokesman Jorge Vázquez Valencia de Aguililla and the leader of Yurécuaro, Enrique Hernández Salcedo, declared that the now ex-chief  of the Templars negotiated his arrest with representatives of the Federal Government: his presence was an obstacle to showing the re-establishment of security in Michoacán and, for that reason, he was able to reach an agreement for his exit from the scene with “privileged treatment, a few years in jail and impunity to enjoy his money after that.”

In spite of the presence of the Municipal, State and Federal Police, and the Army and Navy in the body of the Rural Forces, according to the Report on Victims of homicide, Kidnapping and Extortion 2014 [Informe de víctimas de homicidio, secuestro y extorsión 2014] put out by the Secretary of the Government [Secretaría de Gobernación (SEGOB)], Michoacán occupied in 2014 the second place in Mexico for incidents of homicide, with 2,634 cases, of which 1,052 were intentional and 1,582 were negligent, and continues to be one of the 10 states with the highest number of kidnappings (121) and extortion (275) registered. Moreover, between 2014 and what has passed of 2015, 533 complaints have been presented against the Michoacán Secretary of Public Security, received by the State Commission of Human Rights [Comisión Estatal de los Derechos Humanos (CEDH)] and, of these, at least 128 cite the Rural Forces with accusations of illegal arrest and detention, abuse of authority, arbitrary use of force, wounds, threats and searches, and as such denying service or providing inadequate service. The “legitimate” Self-Defenses and some security analysts, like Alejandro Hope in an interview with CNN, agree that the detention of “La Tuta” (Servando Gómez Martínez) will not change much in the situation of the state of Michoacán.

Tuesday, the 24th of February, 2015, was the second anniversary of the armed uprising of the Self-Defenses. It’s not surprising that many citizens of Michoacán, interviewed about the topic, have confirmed that there’s nothing to celebrate.

Author: Valentina Valle Baroz is an independent journalist based in México. You can contact her at valentinavallebaroz(arroba)

Translator: April Howard teaches Latin American Studies and Spanish in Vermont and New York, and writes about Social and Reproductive Justice in Latin America. She is a member of the Upside Down World Editorial Collective.