11/30/13 – Self-defense groups in November continued their expansion in the troubled Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, where the federal government has sent thousands of soldiers and agents of the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) in an attempt to restore order to the area. The situation has sparked fierce debate in the nation’s capital regarding how to best address the challenge, while underscoring the extent to which criminal organizations have expanded their own presence in the state. According to the newspaper Proceso, self-defense groups have appeared in at least 13 Mexican states, most notably in Guerrero and Michoacán, though they have also been detected in Chiapas, Chihuahua, the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex), Jalisco, Morelos, Oaxaca, Puebla, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, and Veracruz. What most of the groups have in common is that they are found in relatively poor, rural areas where state and federal authorities have little or no presence, and municipal police forces are weak and/or susceptible to influence from organized crime.
Despite the state and federal governments’ insistence that the groups would not spread any further, self-defense groups have expanded their presence to seven municipalities in the mountainous Tierra Caliente region in response to increased activity from organized crime groups in the area, principally the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios). In mid-November, Mexico Attorney General José Murillo and Michoacán Governor Fausto Vallejo said they would not allow further expansion of the groups, but a week later there were reports of blockades around four communities where there was previously no presence of self-defense forces. Armed confrontations have broken out in recent weeks between groups claiming to be self-defense forces and presumed organized crime members. During the last week of November, three Federal Police officers were killed in two separate incidents. Two were killed and 13 others wounded when a PF convoy was ambushed on November 26 in the Parácuaro municipality. Three days later, immediately after self-defense groups had announced their expansion to four new communities, the body of a third PF officer was found in a parking lot in the center of Apatzingán, the municipality that has drawn the most attention of community police groups and authorities alike.
In response to the deteriorating security situation in western Michoacán, the Mexican government sent an additional 1,000 soldiers to the area to reinforce the already sizeable military presence around Apatzingán. The Mexican Army (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) has taken over operations of the Vista Hermosa, Lázaro Cárdenas, and Apatzingán municipalities in the Tierra Caliente region, while Governor Vallejo has taken a strong stance against the community police groups. Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong has said that the federal forces will remain in the state until rule of law in the state has been restored.
Some groups, like those in Guerrero connected to the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, CRAC), are well established, dating back as far as the mid-1990s when that group formed; while others were created much more recently, and more ad-hoc than those comprising CRAC. Still others—particularly in Michoacán—are feared to have ties to organized crime groups. Regardless of their origins and intentions, the persistence and expansion of these groups are either a symptom of, or reaction to, the federal, state, and local governments’ inability to adequately respond to a worsening public security crisis in the affected areas. Making matters worse, El Universal reported that two federal senators revealed to the newspaper that representatives of the Knights Templar were admitted to the Mexican Senate to discuss the public security situation in Michoacán. One of those present, Luisa María Calderón of the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN) and sister of former President Felipe Calderón, said she did not know who had admitted the individuals in question. Nevertheless, on October 17, a group of ten people, which included community and business leaders from Apatzingán representing a group calling itself the Michoacan Peace and Dignity Association (Asociación Michoacanos, Paz y Dignidad), met with members of the Senate. This group is headed by Tito Emigdio Fernández Torres, who military authorities as well as the Federal Police have reportedly identified as forming part of the Knights Templar’s political and business wing. According to a military report, Fernández had ties to former La Familia Michoacana leader Nazario Moreno, and has led a media campaign in the area to discredit the Federal Police and Mexican Army, accusing them of systematic human rights violations. Calderón said that when the senators realized who the individuals were, many left the meeting, and expressed concern that they must have connections within the Senate that allowed them free access. For his part, Fernández and the group he leads have denied any criminal associations, and said they would seek the removal of Luisa María Calderón from office, who he said has her own ties to Michoacán’s community police groups.
Regardless of the veracity of the allegations against Fernández, the worsening security situation in Michoacán has rekindled the debate over whether the Mexican’ government’s inability, or unwillingness, to control criminal activity in certain parts of the national territory constitutes a “failed state.” It is a term that was often circulated in the media during the initial surge in cartel-related violence during the Calderón administration (2006-2012). Since then, however, criminal groups have diversified their activities to include extortion, oil theft, and kidnapping. Now, according to the Associated Press, drug trafficking organizations have now made inroads into Mexico’s iron ore mining industry, integrating themselves even deeper into the national economy. On November 4, the Mexican military occupied Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán, the country’s second-largest port, in order to cut off export of illegally obtained iron ore to China, principally by the Knights Templar. Federal officials have reportedly been aware of the problem since 2010, when that group’s predecessor, La Familia Michoacana, carried out the same practice. Last month, individuals believed to belong to the Knights Templar attacked power stations in the same region of western Michoacán, leaving 11 towns without power in an unprecedented attack on national infrastructure. Meanwhile, PAN leaders in the Mexican Senate are pushing for a constitutional reform that would allow for the forced removal of state officials, particularly Governor Vallejo, who belongs to President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). Perhaps most troubling, though, is the loss of faith in authorities to offer protection to a beleaguered citizenry that has opened space for the emergence of the self-defense groups, which voices ranging from the Mexican government to the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) have acknowledged as incompatible with the rule of law. For these reasons, the current situation in Michoacán perhaps presents the greatest challenge yet for the federal government in the ongoing struggle with criminal organizations.
In related news, human rights groups are working with the family of a woman from Seattle, Washington who was arrested in August in the state of Guerrero. She was the leader of a self-defense group claiming to be protecting the Olinala indigenous community in Guerrero against drug trafficking organizations and police corruption. The state of Guerrero has legal provisions allowing these groups to operate, but state authorities arrested the woman, Nestora Salgado (41), on kidnapping charges. Salgado’s family has turned to the International Human Rights Clinic at the Seattle University School of Law for help in the case. The group filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention based in Geneva. Along with Salgado’s family, the Human Rights Clinic has argued that Salgado’s detention was politically motivated. Salgado was accused of kidnapping in connection with the arrest of a group of teen girls her organization believed to be involved in drug deals; and of a local official for the alleged attempted theft of a cow at the scene of a double killing. Salgado is a U.S. citizen who moved to the United States when she was around 20 years old. Beginning around 2000, she reportedly began returning to Olinala periodically with donations, becoming increasingly involved in the community’s security situation and eventually heading up the community defense group.