Independence Movement or Just More Disorder?

In which I try to make sense of what’s happening in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

~ Today I met with my writing partner, a kind, intelligent Mexican businessman and writer, who is concerned about the self-defense groups that have taken up arms in the state of Michoacán—one state away. They are called Autodefensas comunitarias—citizen defense groups.

“Where do you think the weapons are coming from?” I ask.

We’re talking about a lot of AK47’s—in civilian hands, presumably non-narco hands—people that have grown tired of losing their children to rape, kidnapping and murder.

“And who is paying for them?” he asks. And then we talk about it for at least an hour, trying to figure it out, excluding no one, not even the CIA or other external forces.

I mention that the narcos have had no trouble getting weapons—assault rifles, grenades, and even RPG’s—rocket propelled grenades. Weapons smugglers, I say, are probably indifferent to who is buying, as long as there are sales—all of which are supplied by some 1,200 U.S. gun shops and fairs along the U.S. border. The other part of the equation is the insatiable appetite for narcotics in the U.S.—which drives the whole mess.

~ From La Jornada, Jan. 27, 2014. Journalist Salvador Díaz Sánchez asks questions as well.

He thinks it’s about independence from the State, and not a civil war. The State considers either possibility as unacceptable—except, ironically, when it applies to the criminal networks and their long de-facto rule of Michoacán.

Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde is spokesperson for el Consejo General de Autodefensas y Comunitarios de Michoacán—the General Council of Community Defenders. They call him Papá Pitufo, and the authorities, or some other group, say he has a criminal record. (When I listened to an interview with him, I thought he made a lot of sense.)

For years, small businesses, taxi companies, grocery stores, furniture shops, restaurants, artisans, cattlemen, growers, miners, businessmen, for years they have been victims of robbery, extortion, kidnapping, rapes, killings, extortion, and land use fees (to use their’s own land). It therefore seems logical that the money to finance AK47’s and other assault rifles comes from these businessmen in this area—which is called the Tierra Caliente, the Hot Country, south and west of Morelia.

As if it were a military campaign, the movement of self-defense has been spreading across the state to Nueva Italia, La Huacana, Tomatlán, Carrillo Puerto, Aquila, Aguililla, Antúnez, Parácuaro, Tancítaro, Acahuato, Buenavista, La Ruana and Churumuco. This is the cucaracha efecto, the cockroach effect, that alarms the federal government.

The formation of auto defense groups is, to some extent, imitative of older groups, like those in Cherán, Nahuátzen Cherato, Cheratillo, Urapicho, Zicuicho, Oruscato, and Ocumitzo, where for years the authorities have done little to protect the citizens, in fact were often in collusion with the criminal forces also armed with assault weapons.

Now, the more recent citizen forces have decided to move on to Apatzingán, a center of commerce and important crossroads. This was the deciding moment for the federal government. To them it smelled of insurrection, and the present, incapacitated and ailing governor of Michoacán, referred to as La Momia—The Mummy—appealed to the president of Mexico for help.

And so the federal Army entered Atúnez and on the governor’s instructions ended up shooting down four citizens, one an eleven-year old boy, in a confrontation with people shouting they would not disarm—according to their leader Estanislao Beltrán—until all the leaders of organized crime were arrested, in this case the organization called Caballeros Templarios.

The self-defense groups actually started earlier in another part of Michoacán, in a town called Cherán, where villages took up arms to defend their forests from illegal, narco-connected loggers.

But in the present case, the newspapers quickly filled with speculation. What would happen if the base—those citizens with the weapons—began to ignore the instruction from their financial backers and began to say no to Mexico’s political parties and instead proposed  independence? As in earlier Cherán.

Others said the federal and state government, at all levels, would prefer dealing with the Caballeros Templarios, the reigning, in-place cartel, to a democratic group with middle class supporters, and that the government feared a metamorphosis from self-defense groups to community assemblies. And so, what was the government to do? As if the question of control had not come up all the time the Templarios held free reign.

At first, it appeared that the federal government supported the self-defense movement, having been lobbied by the middle class backers of these groups who wanted to protect their economic interests. But now there was the cockroach effect, and the cry went up that the self-defense groups must adhere strictly to the law, that no citizen might own an assault weapon—as if that was not what the Templarios had in spades for years and years.

In one of the poorest states in Mexico, Guerrero, another similar model has been in place for 18 years. There are no leaders, the structure is horizontal, sustainable development is the goal—including citizen protection, since the government has not care to do it.

To date, in Guerrero, there are twenty-four community police groups that belong to the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, CRAC, the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities. CRAC tries avoid any connection with the government(s). Other groups are closer to the government(s), like the the UPOEG, la Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero—the Union of Peoples and Organization of the State of Guerro—who have also formed to combat cartel and non-cartel robbery, kidnapping, killings and the highest incidence of poverty in Mexico.

The CRAC rejects names like “self-defense groups.” Their system embraces wider, community-based projects. Local “law” recognizes the legitimacy of their police. They call themselves institutions and decisions are made in community assemblies, not in meetings with the government(s). (This is what the government(s), federal and state, fear in Michoacán.)

The State (Michoacán/Mexico) tolerated, somewhat, the new self-defense groups, as long as they didn’t invade what the government perceives as its areas of power. Local, effective self-governance alarms the ineffective, uninterested, probably cartel-compromised state and federal government. The latter says it will not try to disarm the self-defense groups, as long as they stay in their “boxes,” in their municipalities and towns.

What appears to be true is that the Attorney General of Mexico Jesús Murillo Karam is concerned about the cucaracha effect, and little else. Journalists feel this man really has no ideas about how to bring law and justice to the region (to all of Mexico?)—since he and his political class appear to have tolerated cartel-controlled mayhem in Michoacán at a time when there was no such governmental insistence that the Templarios with AK47’s adhere to the rule of law and turn in their weapons or follow other restrictions.

Restrictions, it would seem, are reserved for the “good” citizens.

~ Summarized from the weekly Mexican magazine Proceso comes the following:

The first victim of a war is the truth. What we are left with is often confusion, speculation and disinformation.

What appears to be known is:

1. Michoacán is swamped with narcos from Morelia to Lázaro Cárdenas and from Zitácuaro to La Piedad—(a town about an hour from us.)

2. The federal government admits there are as many as 15,000 auto defense participants.

3. One is justified using the word “paramilitary” when referring to the self-defense groups.

4. Although self-defense groups are in at least 11 towns, they don’t necessarily control that area and they do not control their own funding or political alliances.

5. No one controls Michoacán. If anyone, it’s still the narcos that are in control.

6. There is a lot of money in the Tierra Caliente—narco and commercial. Self-defense leaders are middle class, with connections to the U.S. and financial backing there—possibly.

7. The armed citizens are locals, not outsiders.

8. This is an old problem brought about by the narcos and the indolence and stupidity of government at all levels.

9. Michoacán was always a social pressure cooker. One can assume that a lot of hotheads will join the self-defense movement. That is what the practical, if ineffective, federal government fears. (This same dynamic existed in the Mexican Revolution and the Christero War).

10. For the last ten years, locals have been giving the government intelligence on the identity and location of the narcos. But the government has not arrested them. Nor has government resolved 95% of the 990 murders committed in Michoacán in 2013. Not to mention those committed in 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and before. Impunity fuels the conflict.

11. Citizens have pointed out and reported the involvement of government functionaries and their families with the cartels—with little results. Response to their complaints is essential to solving the problem.

12. With no action taken by the government, everything just goes on as before.

13. There is no indication that the special federally appointed commissioner, who is to solved everything—Alfredo Castillo, has either the knowledge or the capacity to resolve any of it. His job appears to be as spinner who is charged with lessening the damage done by the conflict to President Peña Nieto’s image—and it is important to view his pronouncements with skepticism.

14. The government at the state and federal level are in conflict. President of the Republic Enrique Peña Nieto and his Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong support the self-defense groups—or at least say they do. They want to make them into police. The ailing governor of the state opposes that.

What is not clear:

1. Whether the self-defense numbers will reach 45,000 members as predicted by the bishop of the cathedral in Apatzingán, Gregorio López.

2. No one knows what roll former governors Lázaro Cárdenas Batel and Leonel Godoy and their people had in empowering the narcos in the state of Michoacán. There is, for example, still no resolution of the grenade attack on the night of the Grito—the Cry of Independence—in 2008, in the historical center of Morelia.

3. A huge amount of debt was taken on in Leonel Godoy’s state governorship. It is naive to think that the narco economy was not involved in the disappearance of that enormous sum of money.

4. Unclear is the involvement of the neighboring cartel called the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—Jalisco New Generation—which is allied with the Cártel de Sinaloa and is at war with Los Templarios. It’s important to mention that the CJNG in Guerrero allied itself there with local auto defense groups that were fighting Los Templarios. One can assume the CJNG is not just standing by doing nothing, i.e. El Chapo Guzmán is probably involved, except one doesn’t know how, nor to what extent he holds the puppet strings. (One has to suspect that the narcos—highly skilled—are involved with any group.)

5. One of the most opaque aspects is the origin of the weapons. The self-defense people say they are hunting guns, supplied by concerned U.S. Mexicans, or taken from enemy casualties, of which there have been no more than 100. The 10,000 assault rifles estimated to be in the hands of the auto-defense groups must have cost something like 50,000,000 pesos—roughly four million dollars.

6. The big mysteries: a) The connection with Michoacán businessmen exiled to the U.S. (driven out by narcos or fear of them) that are presumably paying for the weapons, and B) the type of relationship they have with Peña Nieto’s administration.
Every government wants a group that can do its dirty work for them and in order to avoid direct responsibility while they inflict a mortal wound on the narcos.

7. It’s not clear who Dr. José Manuel Mireles is, the spokesman of the auto-defense groups. He seems to have a criminal record, although that may be nothing more than disinformation.

8. The ex-governor of the state Jesús Reyna has not explained why he attended a funeral of the father of a former chief of La Familia Michoacana.

~ Recent Developments, from the newspaper La Jornada, 28. January 2014: by Arturo Cano, summarized:

The government(s) suddenly jumps to life and holds a meeting in Tepalcatepec, where a few self-defense leaders signed an accord with the federal government (without consensus of the base), whereby the self-defense groups are to be converted into “defense rurales,” echoing the name given to the National Rural Police under Juárez and Porfirio Díaz.

The community defense groups are to be directed by the Mexican Army and are to register themselves and their weapons. They are to be temporary. In return, they get communication equipment from the Army. (Which seems like a bargain with the Devil. Did the Army ever make the same demands of the narcos with all their weapons?)

While various government officials speak official-speak, members of the audience shout out comments:

“You’ve come to sign an agreement? For what, if there are no doctors, no medicine, no education. Cowards! White-collared criminals! Investigate the murders of our young people!”

A woman bureaucrat speaks for the government.

“You have to trust in the government again,” she counsels.

The audience boos, and shouts “Get out!”

She perseveres, with her “Colgate smile.” She says if the Government doesn’t follow through, she will join the self-defense groups.

A man shouts, “We’re where we are right now because of people like this woman!”

One of the leaders, Martín Barragán, takes the floor and says, “We should give the Government a vote of confidence.” Having dispensed with this courtesy, he continues, “They (the government) proposed a treaty that we don’t advance until we have registered and become legal. We don’t want to just clean up the townships where we are already. We want to clean up the whole state of Michoacán.”

The state and federal authorities don’t move a muscle. This is precisely what they don’t want to hear.

He continues, “Don’t give us any more fictitious reports of narcos shot down.” He is referring to Nazario Moreno, whom Felipe Calderón, the former President of the Republic, said they had killed and who later has turned up alive.

More government-speak continues. The president’s special commissioner charged with bringing the rule of law—that was missing for a very long time before—says the self-defense groups can show even more courage by doing the brave thing by registering themselves and their weapons with the Army. (Again, a bargain with the Devil, who himself is known to be compromised by narco connections.)

He talks about their common purpose and how together they should repair the “social fabric” and Mexico’s “institutions.”

Another auto-defense leader says the government should recompense the families of slain auto defense fighters.

Another leader reproaches the government because the narco leaders go their merry way through the countryside and townships. The crowd shouts in agreement and call out, “We want heads!”

The Commissioner of the Federal Police takes a moment to announce the—miraculous and coincidental—capture of a narco leader (who shall remain unnamed) and the apprehension of 182 others.

This important narco leader had already been declared dead once before.

“Where is the El Muerto—the Dead Man?” someone cries out, as if that were his nickname.

Only the special commissioner and a general quartered in Apatzingán have escaped booing. But an old man gets up and slowly explains, “They delivered some sicarios—killers—to this general and the next day he let them go.”

Finally, another leader explains, “Sooner or later we’ll take the whole state.”

~ In Conclusion, I have to say that if the self-defense groups are anything like my barrio, there will be all kinds of internal conflicts, irrational behavior and potential violence—while the rest of us stand by and try to decide which way to jump.

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