Organized crime-related incidents occur in Michoacán

Cop cars at Tizupan Police Station

Five police were kidnapped from the Tizupan Police Station seen here in Aquila, Michoacán. Photo: Secretaría de Seguridad Pública.

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.

Mayor seated for interview

Aquila Mayor José Luis Arteaga. Photo: Especial, Proceso.

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.

Sources:

“Mexico’s federal forces take down third Knights Templar leader in three-month span.” Justice in Mexico. April 1, 2014.

“News Monitor.” Vol. 9, No. 10. Justice in Mexico. October 2014.

“Servando ‘La Tuta’ Gómez captured in Michoacán.” Justice in Mexico. March 1, 2015.

Castellanos J., Francisco. “’Michoacán vive una calma frágil’, dice Aureoles en su primer informe.” Proceso. September 18, 2016.

“Secuestran a 5 policías en Aquila.” Milenio. February 6, 2017.

“Liberan a policies secuestrados en Aquila, Michoacán.” Proceso. February 8, 2017.

Arrieta, Carlos. “Aquila: liberan a los cinco policías secuestrados.” El Universal. February 9, 2017.

Castellanos J., Francisco. “En enfrentamiento muere uno de los líderes de Los Viagros en Michoacán.” Proceso. March 5, 2017.

Servando “La Tuta” Gómez captured in Morelia, Michoacán

Servando "La Tuta" Gómez Martínez. Photo: CNN México.

Servando “La Tuta” Gómez Martínez. Photo: CNN México.

03/01/15 (written by cmolzahn) — Following an extended period of intelligence gathering, Mexico’s Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) on Friday, February 27 arrested Knights Templar Organization (Caballeros Templarios, KTO) leader Servando Gómez Martínez, “La Tuta,” at a house in Morelia, Michoacán, as reported by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR). Arrested alongside Gómez were his girlfriend, María Antonieta Luna Ávalos (27), and seven of Gómez’s bodyguards. The same day, a separate operation in Mérida, Yucatán captured Gómez’s brother, Flavio Gómez Martínez, the alleged KTO financial chief.

Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong classified La Tuta’s capture as “the most important objective in the battle against organized crime, the detention of the most sought-after criminal in Mexico.” After La Tuta’s capture, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said that the investigation leading to the arrest began in mid-2014, when authorities were able to identify several people acting as intermediaries between Gómez and members of his family. In September, Rubido said, investigators were able to identify an individual within Gómez’s inner circle, a messenger who communicated orders from Gómez to his area chiefs. On February 2, investigators saw this man and several others enter a home in Morelia, where La Tuta was presumably celebrating his birthday. The same group was identified on February 27 at the same home, upon which Special Forces were notified, and La Tuta was detained as he left the house, without shots being fired. Gómez’s arrest makes ten leaders of major criminal organizations arrested during the past six years, with six of those falling under the Peña Nieto administration, with the highest-priority cartel leader remaining being Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Gómez, formerly an elementary school teacher, had climbed the ranks of the now-defunct La Familia Michoacana criminal organization and, following the disintegration of that group in 2010, joined Nazario Moreno, also currently in government custody, to form the KTO. The new organization retained the pseudo-religious pretext of its predecessor, while branching out into activities including extortion and infiltration into Michoacán’s mining and agricultural sectors. The group’s presence in Michoacán reached its pinnacle in early 2013, when vigilante groups (grupos de autodefensa) emerged in the Tierra Caliente region. Initially sparked by embattled lime producers, the groups decried the government’s failure to address the aggressive tactics of the KTO, which had drastically extended its reach across the state, including Mexico’s second largest port in Lázaro Cárdenas.

It is often the case that when the head of a criminal organization is captured, violence ensues as lower-ranking members fight among themselves for control of the territories of influence, particularly in cases of newer, less-disciplined groups. Some national security experts believe that this will be the case following the arrest of La Tuta, whose group at one time influenced local politics, controlled sectors of the economy, and otherwise made its presence known through violence, threats, and extortion in municipalities across Michoacán. Gerardo Rodríguez, national security and terrorism professor at the Collective of Analysis of Security with Democracy (Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia, Casede), said that Gómez’s arrest was the “cherry on the cake” that the Peña Nieto administration needed to be able to draw the “low intensity war” in Michoacán to a close. Javier Oliva, a national security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, said that Gómez’s capture is good news for the government, as well as the citizenry, and particularly for the electoral process in Michoacán. Meanwhile Jorge Chabat, a professor and researcher in the international studies division of the Center for Economic Investigation and Teaching (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE), agrees that the arrest of La Tuta is a positive development in the short term, but must not distract from the fact that there are long term, structural problems of public security that need to be addressed. He added his doubts about the likelihood of Michoacán’s security situation improving. While recognizing La Tuta’s arrest as an important step, he said that other criminal groups would likely attempt to fill the void. Gerardo Rodríguez foresees a process of fragmentation within the KTO, accompanied by a strengthening of the KTO’s principal rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG), as well as attempts by the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo, CDG) and the Zetas to try to retake lost territory, including the port of Lázaro Cárdenas. Oliva pointed out that this process – particularly the increased activity of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – had already begun during the time that La Tuta was occupied with avoiding the latest federal operation to capture him. Justice in Mexico Project’s David Shirk warns that it would be a mistake to conclude that the KTO is dismantled after Gómez’s arrest given the staying power it has exhibited thus far, with roots dating back to the 1980s and 1990s.

Sources:

Muedano, Marcos. “Expertos prevén que se desate disputa de crimen por la plaza.” El Universal. February 28, 2015.

Muedano, Marcos. “’La Tuta’: tuve que tomar el poder en Michoacán.” El Universal. February 28, 2015.

“Captura de La Tuta no reduce el narcotráfico, dicen expertos.” La Jornada. March 1, 2015.