02/25/14 (written by cmolzahn) — In the year following the emergence of the so-called self-defense groups (grupos de autodefensa) in Michoacán in February 2013, they have transitioned from fringe groups operating outside the law to last month being folded into the state security apparatus in Michoacán as part of a rural defense group under the auspices of the Mexican Army. Moreover, they are also reportedly receiving funding from the state’s lucrative mining industry—a target of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) criminal organization—, which the groups say they exist to counteract. According to Estanislao Beltrán, the man widely recognized as the spokesman for the movement of autodefensas, such groups now have a presence in 23 of Michoacán’s 113 municipalities, primarily in the troubled Tierra Caliente region. He said that the extent of their presence in the municipalities varies, but that they are present throughout 14 of them.
On February 8, self-defense groups entered the Templarios stronghold of Apatzingán, along with members of the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) and the Mexican Army. The self-defense groups had identified the city as their top strategic priority, and had worked for months to surround Apatzingán, taking over security functions in several surrounding communities. The self-defense groups were reportedly unarmed when they entered the city of more than 90,000. The vigilante groups sent out a Twitter message reading, “Today the world will be witness to your liberation, Apatzingán.” They also sent a photo of one of their leaders, Hipólito Mora, in a meeting with Father Gregorio López Gerónimo, who has received multiple death threats for his outspoken criticism of the Knights Templar in the city. Alongside Federal Police and Army personnel, the autodefensas set up several checkpoints around town to catch cartel members entering or leaving the city.
A month following the decision to regularize the self-defense groups, Michoacán Governor Fausto Vallejo reports that nearly 700 members had registered themselves and their firearms with the Mexican Army. He added that not all of those who had presented themselves had passed the required examinations for admittance into the Rural Defense Corps. Vallejo did not elaborate on the percentage of applicants that did not gain admittance nor on the specific reasons for which they were turned away.
A primary concern among security experts and also expressed by Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) has been that the self-defense groups could be easily infiltrated by organized crime groups, particularly those fighting the Templarios’ influence in the region, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación). Governor Vallejo and Alfredo Castillo, the commissioner appointed by the federal government to oversee security operations in the state, have expressed their hope and expectation that regularizing the self-defense groups and submitting them to vetting exams would lessen the risk of organized crime infiltration. Nevertheless, this month the mayor of Tepalcatepec, Michoacán, Guillermo Valencia, maintained that a member of the self-defense group in that town, Juan José Farías (“El Abuelo”), is a leader in the Valencia drug cartel, and is responsible for killings and drug trafficking in the area. Farías’ name entered the national press after Reforma identified him as he spoke with Alfredo Castillo. For his part, Castillo later said he had no knowledge of who Farías was, or of his past. Estanislao Beltrán pointed out that Farías was already investigated for organized crime involvement, but was absolved of the charges, though he did serve three years in prison for possession of an illegal firearm and hashish. According to CNN México, the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) requested an arrest warrant on January 20 for Farías for similar charges, which a judge rejected. The PGR is reportedly appealing the decision.
While their possible ties with organized crime remain speculation and the self-defense groups themselves have vehemently denied having them, the groups’ spokesman, Estanislao Beltrán, announced this month that the groups are receiving financial support from the state’s mining sector, which has reported that for years it has been extorted by the Knights Templar. Interviewed by AFP, the head of a foreign mining company operating in the state, who asked to remain anonymous, said that since the autodefensas took control of the town where the company operates extortions have largely ceased. In exchange, he said, the company has agreed to pay $3-$4 per ton of iron it extracts. Michoacán is the largest producer of iron in Mexico, representing 27.2% of national production. The Knights Templar reportedly began illegally extracting iron in 2010 and exporting it to China, primarily via the port in Lázaro Cárdenas, which the Mexican Army has maintained since more than 9,000 soldiers were sent there in January.
While government officials, and Governor Vallejo in particular, have publicly embraced the autodefensas and lauded their efforts to improve the security situation in Michoacán, there is some evidence of ruptures within the movement that could complicate relations with government authorities. Self-defense groups in the town of La Ruana, where the groups originated a year ago, announced that they have cut ties with movement spokesman Estanislao Beltrán, saying that he maintains connections with former Knights Templar members. In statements made via social media, the group announced its alliance with seven other groups including that of Apatzingán, and identified Father Gregorio López Gerónimo of Apatzingán as their leader. Father Gregorio suffered an attempt on his life by presumed Templarios last month. Furthermore, the groups announced their separation from the Counsel of United Autodefensas of Michoacán (Consejo de Autodefensas Unidas de Michoacán), and that each group leader will now represent his or her own community. For his part, Beltrán has denied that there are divisions within the movement and that his position as spokesman is in question.
On February 4, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the federal government would invest $3.4 billion (USD) in infrastructure and social programs in Michoacán in order to address some of the root causes of the unrest there. The proposal is vastly greater than the one set forth by Peña Nieto’s social development secretary, Rosario Robles, who pledged around $225 million (USD). The move, which Peña Nieto said is meant “to recover security, establish conditions of social order, and spur economic development” in the state, resembles a plan set forth by former President Felipe Calderón in 2010 to restore order and drive development in the city of Juárez, Chihuahua, then the most violent city in Mexico. In the same vein, Interior Minister (secretario de Gobernación) Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced the 24 representatives from the federal government who will act as liaisons in Michoacán to as many government agencies, including the ministries of the Treasury (Hacienda), Social Development (Desarrollo Social, Sedesol), Environment (Medio Ambiente, Semarnat), and Public Education (Educación Pública, SEP), among many others.