When people in Mexico’s western state of Michoacán started fighting back against the unbridled violence, systematic economic exploitation, and shattered self respect that came with living under the de facto dictatorship of one of Mexico’s most vicious and bizarre criminal gangs, many in Mexico applauded, or at least expressed sympathy. Today the Knights Templar cartel that once dominated the region is a shadow of its former self, but concern is growing that the heavily armed militias who helped break the cartel’s dominance could themselves trigger more violence and prove as difficult to control.
The leader of a civilian “self-defence” group in Mexico has been arrested for allegedly participating in the killings of two men, according to authorities. Prosecutors say Hipólito Mora was detained on Tuesday after witnesses told investigators he and other members of his group took part in the killings in the town of Buenavista in the western state of Michoacan.
One of the main leaders of the civilian “self-defense” groups that rose up to challenge a drug cartel in Mexico’s Michoacan state was detained late Tuesday as a suspect in the weekend killings of two vigilantes, authorities announced. The detention of Hipolito Mora, who had become the affable public face of the vigilante movement, came as federal authorities sought to heal a rift between his faction and another group since the Knights Templar cartel was driven out of much of the western farming state.
Mexico has suffered staggering levels of violence and crime during the country’s seven-year-long war against the cartels. The fighting has killed 90,000 people so far, a death toll larger, as of this writing, than that of the civil war in Syria. Homicide rates have tripled since 2007. In an effort to stem the carnage, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced last December that the federal government, having struggled to defeat the cartels using corrupt local police and an inadequate military, would create an elite national police force of 10,000 officers by the end of this year.
Many Mexicans are unwilling to wait. In communities across the country, groups of men have donned masks, picked up rifles and machetes, and begun patrolling their neighborhoods and farmland. As in the Tierra Colorada incident, their behavior is not always pretty. Several months ago, another such group in the state of Guerrero detained 54 people for over six weeks, accusing them of crimes ranging from stealing cattle to murder. After a series of unofficial trials, they handed 20 of them over to local prosecutors and let the rest go free.
Farmers wearing bulletproof vests and toting assault rifles ride in pick-up trucks emblazoned with the word “self-defense” to protect this rural Mexican town from a drug cartel. The government deployed thousands of troops to the western state of Michoacan this week, but in some towns like Coalcoman, population 10,000, vigilantes are wary of putting down their weapons until they feel safe again. “We won’t drop our guard until we see results,” Antonio Rodriguez, a 37-year-old avocado grower and member of the community force, told AFP.
Authorities detained four members of a self-defense group in another town called Buenavista on Wednesday, angering about 200 residents, some wielding sticks, who surrounded some 20 soldiers to demand their release. The situation was defused about five hours later, when two of the detainees were released, according to an interior ministry source. Local media reported that all four had been released. Interior Minister Miguel Angelo Osorio Chong said earlier that the soldiers were merely having a “dialogue” with the residents to resolve the dispute, but he insisted that the authorities would disarm and detain anyone with a weapon.
Help finally arrived Sunday when thousands of soldiers rolled in to restore order. The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto says troops will stay in Michoacan until every citizen lives in peace. But the offensive, headed by Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos, looks a lot like failed operations launched previously by former President Felipe Calderon, who started his first assault on organized crime in Michoacan shortly after taking office in late 2006.
Calderon was trying to stop drug cartels from morphing into mafias controlling all segments of society. But that’s exactly what has happened, as they maintain country roads, control the local economy and mete out justice for common crimes. In the Tierra Caliente, a remote agricultural region, fire has been a favored weapon of the cartel. On the highway between Coalcoman and La Ruana, the ruins of three sawmills torched by the cartel still smoldered this week.
Some wear genteel straw hats, others red bandanas hiding their faces. Some carry parasols, others sticks and metal rods that they brandish sullenly. The motley crew of middle-class teachers and their rough-necked supporters in the south-western state of Guerrero hardly look like a force to be reckoned with. Yet their protest represents a challenge to the new government of Enrique Peña Nieto. How he copes will influence a reform agenda that he is pushing forward at lightning speed.
The protests come from an unexpected quarter. When prosecutors arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the caudillo-like head of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), on February 26th on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, it looked as if Mr Peña had removed the main obstacle to a constitutional reform on education signed the day before. The reform’s backers were delighted that he had struck against a union that for decades had held sway over education policy.
Debate is intensifying over armed vigilante patrols that have sprung up in crime-plagued sections of rural Mexico, particularly in the state of Guerrero, where some patrols joined forces this week with a radical teachers union that has been wreaking havoc with massive protests, vandalism and violent confrontations with police.
The two groups, on the surface, would appear to have little in common. The vigilante patrols, typically made up of masked campesinos, are among dozens that have emerged in the countryside in recent months, purporting to protect their communities from the depredations of the drug cartels. The state-level teachers union, meanwhile, has taken to the streets to protest a sweeping education reform law backed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
HuffPost Live, 4/1/2013
Mexico Institute Director Duncan Wood joins Juan Salgado, Kathleen Lowenstein and Sanho Tree on HuffPost Live to discuss the latest move by vigilante groups in Mexico. Vigilantes have seized a Mexican town, arresting the police and brandishing automatic weapons. Is this Mexico’s last hope in the drug war?
Hundreds of armed vigilantes have taken control of a town on a major highway in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, arresting local police officers and searching homes after a vigilante leader was killed. Several opened fire on a car of Mexican tourists headed to the beach for Easter week.
Members of the area’s self-described “community police” say more than 1,500 members of the force were stopping traffic Wednesday at improvised checkpoints in the town of Tierra Colorado, which sits on the highway connecting Mexico City to Acapulco. They arrested 12 police and the former director of public security in the town after a leader of the state’s vigilante movement was slain on Monday.