01/30/14 – (written by cmolzahn) Almost a year after they began to appear in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán to counter the influence of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) criminal organization, so-called “self-defense groups” (grupos de autodefensa) continued to spread in the troubled region in January, with the stated goal of fencing in the municipality of Apatzingán, considered to be the Templars’ center of control. The Templars emerged in 2010 from the splintering of the La Familia Michoacana criminal organization after its top leaders were taken out by the Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF). On January 15, the federal government announced an operation involving deployments of Federal Police and Army (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) personnel to reestablish order in the state. Near the end of the month, the government said that it had reached a pact with the groups to absorb them into the state security apparatus, raising concerns from some security analysts.
Michoacán’s self-defense groups gave some ground to the Federal Police in the days following the most recent deployment of federal forces to the area. On January 4, self-defense groups entered Parácuaro, another municipality near Apatzingán, taking control of the municipal building and blockading the access points to the city. Roughly a week later, the Federal Police negotiated entry into Parácuaro with the self-defense groups and citizens alike. It was agreed that the groups would not be required to disarm, but would hide their weapons, allowing the Federal Police to be in charge of patrolling the streets. In some areas, such as the Cuatro Caminos intersection on the highway connecting Michoacán’s capital Morelia with Apazingán, the Federal Police operates in conjunction with the self-defense groups. There, police officers and members of self-defense groups operate four checkpoints with oversight from the Mexican Army. Monte Alejandro Rubido Garceia, executive secretary of the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública), reported that the Federal Police had taken control of security duties in all 27 municipalities the federal operation had targeted in southern Michoacán, where the Tierra Caliente region lies. In addition, around 400 municipal police officers from the region were sent to the police training center in Tlaxcala to undergo vetting exams.
Regardless, the self-defense groups have not ceased their activities, and have vowed that they would not do so until the Templars’ leaders have been apprehended. On January 12, they took the town of Nueva Italia, which they consider to be the Templars’ second most significant position, behind Apatzingán. There were reports of gunfire, from which one member of the self-defense group was reportedly injured. Meanwhile, Apatzingán continues to feel the greatest effects of the conflict between the Templars and the self-defense groups, with several reports of armed men setting fire to vehicles, and a pharmacy near Apatzingán’s government offices was burned. On January 18, the same day that the groups ceded control of Parácuaro to the Federal Police, self-defense groups took control of the nearby town of La Huerta, located within the Apatzingán municipality. This was despite a statement made by Estanislao Beltrán, said to be the self-defense groups’ spokesman, that the groups would not continue their advancement into Apatzingán, but would maintain the positions they had taken to date.
While interactions between the self-defense groups and the Federal Police have been reported to be relatively conflict-free, there have been reports of violent confrontations between the groups and the Mexican Army. Proceso reported on January 14 that soldiers had confronted members of a self-defense group in Antúnez, in the Parácuaro municipality, with unofficial reports of between seven and 12 civilians killed. There were also conflicting messages from the self-defense groups just before and following the confrontation in Antúnez. An hour earlier, Dr. José Manuel Mireles, the most recognizable figure in the self-defense groups, issued a statement that they would agree to disband and return to their communities. However, in a video released just hours after the confrontation he insisted that they would not cease their activities until all seven leaders of the Knights Templar were captured. He also acknowledged that the video was edited to give the appearance that the self-defense groups would accommodate the government’s strategy. A statement from the self-defense commander known as “Cinco” was more inflammatory, saying that as a result there would be “declar[ed] a war against [Governor] Fausto Vallejo and [General Secretary of Government] Jesús Reyna,” accusing them of being “protectors of the Templars.”
The violence in Michoacán has brought about significant changes to the state government. While Governor Fausto Vallejo has remained despite numerous calls for him to step down, many of those responsible for public security in the state have been replaced. José Martín Godoy Castro is now Michoacán’s attorney general, while Carlos Hugo Castellano has been appointed public security secretary. Accompanying him will be Adolfo Eloy Peralto, who will assume the position of assistant public security secretary. Jesús Isaac Aceves was appointed to head up the state’s prison system. Each of the six regional attorneys general (subprocuradurías regionales) will also be replaced. Moreover, the federal government appointed a commissioner, Alfredo Castillo Cervantes, to work alongside Vallejo’s security team in its efforts to restore peace to the state. Michoacán’s current Attorney General Marco Vinicio Aguilera will leave his position to serve on Castillo Cervantes’ team. Meanwhile, the current public security secretary, General Alberto Reyes Vaca, will return to his former duties for the Mexican Army. In a press conference, Commissioner Castillo emphasized that his duties will not trump those of Governor Vallejo, and that he will work alongside state and federal officials to address questions of economic and social development, infrastructure, agriculture, migration, and sustainable development.
The security situation in Michoacán has also had effects on neighboring states, particularly Jalisco. Jalisco state authorities have set up checkpoints along its border with Michoacán in an attempt to stem “spillover” effects from the conflict there. Moreover, the state’s educational institutions report “institutional pressure” from a presumed influx of young people fleeing the violence in Michoacán. The University of Guadalajara (Universidad de Guadalajara, UdeG) has seen a 30% increase in applications from Michoacán residents in recent years seeking to attend UdeG’s university and preparatory campuses in Ocotlán, La Barca, Atotonilco El Alto, and other locations relatively near the Michoacán border.
On January 27, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced that the federal government and self-defense groups in Michoacán had agreed on a pact by which the groups would be absorbed into the state security apparatus, to form what are being termed “Rural Defense Corps” that will operate under the authority of the Mexican Army. The eight-point document specifies that the corps will be temporary, and requires the groups’ leaders to provide the government with a registry of all of their members, and also to register their weapons. The document was signed by Castillo Cervantes, Governor Vallejo, and group leaders Estanislao Beltrán, Hipólito Mora, Jesús Bucio, and Adalberto Rodríguez. Notably absent from the signing was Dr. José Manuel Mireles, leader of the Buenavista self-defense groups. While Osorio Chong touted the agreement as assurance that “all those who want to be part of federal or municipal forces do so within the framework of legality,” Hipólito Mora, who heads the Ruana self-defense groups, insisted that they would continue their advance on Apatingán. Meanwhile, the same day the pact was signed, self-defense groups occupied the government headquarters of the Peribán municipality. Two days earlier, they established a presence in four more communities in the Uruapán municipality, and took the government building of the San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro municipality.
Despite the federal government touting the pact as a significant step forward in resolving the security crisis in Michoacán, some security experts believe that legitimizing groups that have illegally armed themselves is fundamentally incompatible with a viable rule of law. Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Ibero-American University, characterized the move as legitimizing paramilitary groups. Moreover, he criticized the government’s failure to investigate whether, through their operations, the groups engaged in human rights abuses. “The origin of the autodefensas is illegal; there is a problem of legitimacy – it’s necessary that we investigate. Nobody has told us whether there are innocent victims on the part of the autodefensas,” he said. Tirado also criticized the appointment of Castillo Cervantes, saying that the naming of a security commissioner “does not have legal grounding, does not have any constitutional foundation.” Nevertheless, Castillo announced on January 29 that the process of regulating the self-defense groups in Michoacán had begun, with recruiting, distributing uniforms, and collecting records for members of the new Rural Defense Corps.
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