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Anti-Cartel Vigilantes Face Off with Mexican Government

By: María Gabriela Díaz - Jan 17, 2014, 2:37 pm

EspañolIn response to widespread extortion and kidnappings at the hands of drug cartels — and the failure of state assistance — many residents in rural areas of Mexico have formed private, self-defense militias. In the case of Michoacán, a state located in western Mexico, self-defense groups have emerged in attempts to eliminate the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the biggest drug cartel in the area.

With considerable support from locals, the militia members have driven the cartel out of town. Further, video footage from fighting on Sunday affirms that many cartel members have turned themselves over rather than continue fighting. This success seemingly places federal troops against both the militias and many frustrated locals, while indirectly defending the cartel.

Civilians Take Justice into Their Own Hands

“We are civilians,” said José Manuel Mireles, leader of the vigilantes. “We want justice. When there is no justice in a community, when there is no rule of law, people have to find justice with their own hands.” Mireles said the local militia would not put their weapons down until the government arrests the cartel leaders, and proves it can restore the rule of law.

Local residents, peasants, teachers, and merchants have created these self-defense groups against the biggest cartel in the area, and their presence hasn’t gone unnoticed. Over the last year, violence has continued to spiral. Militias have progressively gained more control in nearly all adjoining territories of the city of Apatzingán, the cartel’s main operating base. According to Mireles, vigilantes now have control over 28 cities, almost a quarter of the state.

Last Sunday, vigilantes took control of Nueva Italia in a violent confrontation that overran the town. This victory was the final piece necessary to completely surround Apatzingán, the cartel’s last stronghold in the area.

Townspeople have expressed their support for these militias, and repudiated the government’s decision to disarm them.

“They [vigilantes] defend us, they are people like us; if [the government] disarms them, we will get killed,” a local woman asserted, withholding her name, given fear of cartel retaliation.

Aside from kidnappings and murders, local people also became disenchanted with this cartel ever since they started setting higher prices on consumer goods, and began extorting all businesses by charging protection fees.

In spite of what people may think about these insurgent groups, Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong has publicly reinforced the government’s stance that they are acting outside the law, and has committed to reinforcing security forces in areas where the vigilantes have taken control. However, this contradicts local assertions. Many residents have stated that these militias are accepted by local police officers, and even work alongside them to combat drug cartels.

Federal Government Seeks Dialogue

At the same time as vigilantes were taking over Nueva Italia, Michoacán State Governor, Fausto Vallejo, said in a press conference that they will address this crisis with an “iron fist.” However, the turmoil soon got out of hand for local authorities, leading Vallejo formally requesting support from the federal government.

Vallejo met with vigilantes in Múgica the following day to negotiate a peace agreement. The governor, alongside officers from the Ministry of the Interior and National Defense Ministry, spoke with leading militia representatives Estanislao Beltrán and Hipolito Mora. Even though they agreed to coordinate actions with federal troops to fight against the Knights Templar, Beltrán and Mora refused to be the first ones to disarm.

“We are going to a look for a way to slowly put the guns down,” Beltrán said, “but our main aim still is to ‘clean’ the state from organized crime, specifically, the Knights Templar, and avoid any confrontation with federal forces.”

The second leader, Mora, said “The government is starting backwards, they want us to put down our weapons. But then they [the cartel] will come and attack us. First, the government should go after them [Knights Templar], and then we will gladly withdraw.”

Federal Troops Intervene, The Situation Worsens

Authorities still took action. On Tuesday this disagreement led to violent confrontations with federal troops in Nueva Italia, as vigilantes refused to stand down and hand over their weapons. This occurred despite the presence of 11 helicopters and 70 military officers and investigators from the Mexican government, working alongside state security personnel.

This has become a battle that encompasses the Mexican state, the vigilantes, the drug cartel, and the local people all together. The problem goes deeper when the cartel’s influence on local authorities is put into perspective. Troops disarmed some vigilantes and 200 of Apatzingán local police officers, who were accused of acting under the cartel’s orders. As retaliation, cartel members burned down a local pharmacy near Apatzingán’s municipality building, even though it was held by federal troops.

There is no end to the crisis in the foreseeable future. Yesterday, vigilantes said they would halt their live fire, but would not disarm. This has become a crisis for the state of Michoacán, where more than half of its population lives in poverty, and has become an epicenter for organized crime, leading to more than 77,000 deaths in the last seven years.

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.