Schools and universities have been subjected to increasing violence in recent years, an international study has found. The survey of conflicts in 70 countries between 2009-13 – published on Thursday by the US-based Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) – reveals that violent assaults on educational establishments are far more widespread than previously reported. It also found at least 500 cases of attacks were recorded in Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Mexico and Yemen.
By Hector Abad
Most everyone agrees: The only thing worse than killing is being killed. If our lives are threatened, we have the right to defend ourselves, with force if necessary. In a civilized society, that defense is delegated to the state. But not all of us, apparently, live in that kind of civilized society. Colombia in the 1990s saw the rise of vigilante self-defense groups. In its impotence and desperation at not being able to rapidly win the war against the guerrilla army (which was essentially a drug cartel) and against the drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private army, the state gave the green light to these groups — called Convivir.
What has been going on these last few months in Mexico, in the western state of Michoacán, makes me fear that the same thing is happening there today. “Autodefensas” have organized to drive out the vicious local drug cartel, called the Knights Templar. After first demanding that the vigilantes disband, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has now sanctioned them as part of the Rural Defense Corps — at least nominally under the control of the military.
The inhabitants of Michoacan, a state on Mexico’s Pacific coastline, must feel a grim sense of deja vu regarding recent developments surrounding organized crime-related violence in the region. Seven years ago, then-President Felipe Calderon launched the Joint Operation for Michoacan, through which the Mexican federal government essentially took over responsibility for security enforcement from regional and local authorities. The operation began shortly after La Familia, a criminal organization based in Michoacan, publicly announced itself as a new force to be reckoned with. The law enforcement response then marked the beginning of the Calderon administration’s so-called “war on drugs.”
Jorge Rios, 11 rifle rounds and a silver cross decorating his black flak jacket, lost his job as a dishwasher in Tucson for driving without a license. Santos Ramos Vargas, at 43 the oldest of this gang, got deported from Menlo Park, Calif., when he was caught carrying a pistol. Adolfo Silva Ramos might be with his 2-year-old daughter in Orange County rather than wearing a camouflage cap and combat boots if he hadn’t been busted selling marijuana and crystal meth while in high school there.
The two dozen men standing guard on a rutted road that cuts through these lime groves and cornfields are just one small part of a citizen militia movement spreading over the lowlands of western Mexico. But as they told their stories, common threads emerged: Los Angeles gang members. Deported Texas construction workers. Dismissed Washington state apple pickers. Many were U.S. immigrants who came back, some voluntarily but most often not, to the desiccated job market in the state of Michoacan and found life under the Knights Templar drug cartel that controls the area almost unlivable. They took up arms because they were financially abused by the extortion rackets run by the Templars. Because they had family killed or wounded by their enemies. Because carrying a silver-plated handgun and collecting defeated narcos’ designer cellphones as war booty is more invigorating than packing cucumbers. Because they get to feel, for once, the sensation of being in charge.
Mexican vigilante militias battling drug-traffickers in the restive state of Michoacan said Thursday they had returned several hundred acres of land seized from villagers by the Knights Templar cartel. The symbolic handover of some 654 acres of land, which included avocado and lemon orchards, took place in the village square of Tancitaro in the Michoacan highlands. ”Citizens, businessmen, farmers, people in the communities are bewildered by these narcos. Let’s get them out of our land,” militia leader Estanislao Beltran told Agence France-Presse.
Civilians first took up arms in February 2013 to oust the Knights Templar from the region, saying local police were either colluding with gangs or unable to deal with the violence and extortion rackets. Since then, government officials have alleged that at least some civilian militias were backed by cartels, with critics noting that they used unlawful assault rifles that gangs usually own.
Armed vigilantes who have taken control of territory in lawless Michoacan state could turn into the very sort of organized crime forces they’re fighting, a Mexican official assigned to clean up the violence-wracked state said Thursday.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal government’s new envoy to coordinate security and development in the state, said the Knights Templar cartel that so-called self-defense groups are battling formed about 10 years ago with the same mission: to fight an incursion by the Zetas cartel.
Like an unstoppable tsunami, the wave of drug-related censorship that has enveloped thousands of journalists in Mexico has reached the capital city, long a bastion of relatively open crime reporting, according a report released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico’s criminal syndicates seven years ago, reporters in the provinces have adapted to the new rules of the game: no detailed reports on cartel activity, no mention of top echelon drug leaders, no serious investigations into executions. In hundreds of towns and cities across Mexico, journalists can do little more than regurgitate vague official press releases. For those who stray, threats, kidnappings, beatings and murder are not uncommon. According to Article 19, a press freedom group, 50 reporters have been killed since Calderon took office on December 2006.
But until recently, Mexico City-based journalists had largely been spared from the cartel demands that created a self-imposed censorship for most of the country. They often wrote about criminal organizations without fearing for their lives and the city itself was a bubble of relative calm. Now that’s changed. One of Mexico’s strongest cartels, the Familia Michoacana, has descended on Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl at the edge of Mexico City and silenced the press there, according to the report.
Mexican federal forces have increased efforts to take control of the violent western state of Michoacan, as masked vigilantes and members of one of the country’s most powerful cartels fight for control of the state’s lawless regions.The announcement was made on Wednesday, one day after vigilantes took over the town of Nueva Italia in an attempt to drive out the notorious Knights Templar cartel.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong reported to the media in Mexico City on Wednesday that the government was close to finding three cartel leaders and that he had appointed Commissioner Alfredo Castillo Cervantes to oversee security efforts in Michoacan.
Fifty federal police officers armed with black assault rifles guard the gates of an exclusive private hospital in this cosmopolitan capital.
They are patrolling the polished stone lobby, standing sentry under palm trees, surveilling the Starbucks. Private security guards and local police man the doors, driveways and elevators.
When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power a year ago, he was the new face of the old Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the political machinery that dominated the country for more than 70 years. With his carefully built image of a dynamic young professional, Peña Nieto started his term in office by launching multiple reform initiatives, covering numerous aspects of daily life in the country. He claims that his policies will put Mexico on a promising train to modernity and prosperity. But a year on, what has he really achieved?
One of Peña Nieto’s early commitments was to end the cycle of human rights violations and violence that so characterised former President Felipe Calderon’s administration. Sadly, he has not delivered on that promise: On the Peña Nieto train, human rights have so far had to settle for the third-class carriage.
It’s a story that the Mexican people know all too well. Once again, a new government comes to office making expansive pledges to protect human rights. Once again, it refuses to invest the political capital needed to make a real difference. And once again, the key word in the whole story is impunity.