03/06/17 (written by D. Blanchard and K. Heinle) – Michoacán has witnessed several events in early 2017 surrounding organized crime-related activity that have kept the state in the news. On February 5 in the early hours of the morning, five police officers were kidnapped from their police station in the village of Tizupan, Aquila in Michoacán by alleged cartel members posing as military personnel. Several hours later, the alleged suspects called the station using a payphone to demand that the Tizupan Municipal Police step down in exchange for the release of the kidnapped officers.
After news broke, the mayor of Aquila, José Luis Artega, accused former members of the Knights Templar Organization (Los Caballeros Templarios, KTO), Jesús Cruz Birrueta, “El Chuy Playas,” and Fernando Cruz Tena, “El Tena,” of being behind the kidnapping, reported news outlet Milenio. According to authorities mentioned in the same report, the kidnapping and subsequent demands were part of the organized crime affiliates’ efforts to regain control of the drug trafficking operations along the Pacific Coast, of which Michoacán is a prominent route. Michoacán’s Secretary of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP) announced soon thereafter that security in the region had been strengthened and a search party was formed to locate the kidnapped officers.
On February 8, the five police officers were safely let go. A leader of the self-defense group (grúpo de autodefensa) in the region, Cemeí Verdía Zepeda, attributed their release to the “joint work of the state and local security forces, as well as the strength of the indigenous communities of Aquila.” He was unable, however, to give further details of the operation. Michoacán’s head of government (Secretario de Gobierno), Adrián López Solís, meanwhile, called for an investigation to determine who is responsible for the kidnapping, which appears to be ongoing.
This is not the first time the KTO’s presence in Aquila has caught the public’s attention. In 2013, Aquila’s residents rose up against the Knights Templar, fighting to regain control of their community that the organized crime group had secured. Since then, a statewide strategy to target criminal activity has been in force. As Justice in Mexico reported throughout the years, the strategy led to some noteworthy success in specifically bringing down the KTO. The KTO’s fourth and final leader, Servando “La Tuta” Gómez Martínez, was arrested in 2015 following the take down of the KTO’s other prominent leaders the year before. 2014 also saw the arrest of the sixth mayor in Michoacán with ties to the Knights Templar, a trend that exposed the deep-seated corruption within the state.
Just one month after the police officers’ kidnapping, a leader of the organized crime group (OCG) Los Viagras was shot and killed in a shootout between alleged rival cartels. Juan Carlos Sierra Santana, “La Sopa,” was gunned down on March 5 in Aguililla, Michoacán. The Secretaries of Public Security (SSP) and National Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) confirmed the La Sopa’s death. He was one of seven brothers who allegedly helped coordinate and direct Los Viagras under the leadership of “El Gordo Santana,” writes Proceso.
Michoacán Governor Silvano Aureoles Conejo acknowledged in fall 2016 the “fragile calm” that existed in Michoacán thanks to current and previous administrations’ work to unify police (e.g., Unified Command, Policía Única), decrease levels of crime and violence, and strengthen public security and stability in part because of the military’s presence in the streets, among others. Still, some recognize “the problems Aureoles inherited” when he took office in 2015. Mayor Alfonso Martínez Alcázar of Morelia, Michoacán, for example, noted in Proceso that these challenges have gripped the state for years.
The kidnapping and safe release of the five policemen in Tizupan, as well as the death of Los Viagras’ leader La Sopa, shine a light on the ongoing presence of organized crime in the Michoacán region, and the coordinated efforts between federal, state, and local government to protect rule of law.