Vigilantes in Michoacan

Volunteer community policing has been a tradition in indigenous communities across Southern Mexico for centuries. Though controversial, advocates argue the practice is supported by international law and has been codified in the 1917 constitution that permits local frameworks for "the regulation and solution of internal conflicts."1 These volunteer police forces vary in size and function, depending on the communities they serve. Their main job is to keep "internal" order, targeting petty thieves and, in the worse case scenario, rapists. In almost all areas, they are directly under the control of community elders rather than state or federal officials. In Guerrero, the state bordering Michoacan to the east, community police were given official recognition by the governor in the mid 1990s to calm unrest related to a crime wave and police repression in indigenous communities.2

The rise of hyper-violent, predatory criminal groups through the past decade changed the security equation in Mexico. These criminals usurped territory from security forces, changed the balance of political power and disrupted the marketplace. The militias that have emerged in both Michoacan and Guerrero have sought to deal with this outside threat rather than merely manage internal community matters. But when writing the history of this second group of self-defense groups, Mexicans may start in Tamaulipas. There, in November 2010, Alejo Garza, a farmer and businessman faced with the prospect of handing his land title to the Zetas, allegedly lined all of his hunting rifles and ammunition at the doorways and windows of his ranch outside of Ciudad Victoria and waited for them to come and collect.3 Garza died in the ensuing battle but killed at least four Zetas prompting homages via a ballad, a Facebook page and a twitter hashtag (#alejo).4

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profiles

The first organized manifestations of this second type of vigilantes came in early 2011 when ethnic Purepecha residents of the mountainous Michoacan town of Cheran created armed militias to fight off criminals they said were illegally logging the community's forest.5 Later in 2011, the so-called "Mata Zetas" (Zetas Killers) organization emerged in Veracruz, killing scores of alleged members of the Zetas.6 The "Mata Zetas" appeared to have at least some connection to the Jalisco-based Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion - CJNG) criminal organization.7 Pockets of vigilante groups have since formed in Guerrero. Most notably, in early 2013 communities throughout the coastal mountain range outside Acapulco, Guerrero, formed militias to confront violence, extortion and other abuses perpetrated by organized criminal groups.8

This article is the first in a three-part report on Michoacan's Militias produced by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and InSight Crime. See full report here. Download pdf here.

mexinst

Inspired by these groups, a handful of community leaders in La Ruana, a small town near Apatzingan, decided to form their own militia in early 2013. As militia founder Hipolito Mora tells it, the leaders began slowly, calling townspeople together and explaining that they were arming themselves against the Knights Templar. At the beginning, Mora and others say, the group had only shotguns and pistols, but the townspeople reacted favorably to the proposal anyway.

"If the town hadn't shaken off its fear, I would be dead," Mora said in a later radio interview. "I was surprised by the response."9

Other vigilante groups quickly rose in the nearby towns of Buenavista Tomatlan and Tepalcatepec. They targeted the Knights Templar political and military base, chasing off mayors and police officials they accused of abetting the criminals. They also began to effectively train their gunmen, spread their message and obtain more and better weapons. In fact, the militias were suspiciously well-armed from the start. Their members carried AK-47s, AR-15s and even .50-caliber sniper rifles, which, according to Mexican law, can be used only with a permit issued by the military. These weapons were also more commonly associated with the drug gangs. The militias defended their decision to obtain these weapons by indicating they could not fight the Knights Templar without them.

However, rumors circulated that the vigilantes were mere fronts for Knights' rivals, particularly the aforementioned CJNG, who were supplying them with the weapons. As its name indicates, the CJNG hails from neighboring Jalisco state; they are, in part, remnants of an old Sinaloa Cartel wing and operate in numerous states in Central Mexico. Less than two weeks after the militias formed, soldiers arrested nearly four-dozen militiamen in La Ruana, accusing them of working for the CJNG. The troops seized four-dozen weapons, including assault rifles, machine guns, shotguns and pistols.10 In reaction, the militias briefly shut down roads leading into the county seat, Buenavista Tomatlan. When the army detained four self-defense members in Buenavista that spring, militia-led townspeople briefly detained a platoon of soldiers until the men were released.

Mora, in a 2013 interview, denied links to the CJNG but fell short of a full rebuttal of the accusations. When pressed, he said the newly formed militia acquired the guns with money raised by supporters or captured them from the Knights Templar. And in response to the accusation they were tied to a drug cartel, another militia leader simply said his town's gunmen were "the people's cartel."

"You serve God or you serve the Devil," the leader said. "I stand with the people."11

Yet doubts about the militias' means and motives run deep among officials and in the communities where they operate. Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo stands among the unconvinced. In January, he said he had "clear evidence" that the CJNG was arming the militias.12 In addition to the CJNG, critics contend that militia ranks have been populated with accused former or current members of the Milenio Cartel. Mexican media, quoting leaked government documents, have reported many militia leaders have criminal records.

The leaders deny ties to drug trafficking but some admit to less than sterling pasts. With the militias growing so rapidly, controlling the quality of their members has been difficult, leaders say. They have acknowledged allowing former Knights Templar "hawks" or lookouts to join their ranks but say no leaders or active assassins have done so.

At the same time, characterizing the militias as drug gangs in waiting is also unfair. Militiamen include local farm and factory workers, shopkeepers and even municipal officials. Scores of men, women and children turn out to fill sandbags and build guard posts where militias set up checkpoints on the roads leading into towns. Many of the vigilante leaders and foot soldiers have also spent considerable time in the United States, a number of them either born or primarily raised north of the border. Mora, Jose Manuel Mireles and "Comandante Cinco," a thirty-something businessman commanding the militiamen in Apatzingan, all lived for years in California. Both Estanislao Beltran and Luis Antonio Torres, the militia commander and Mora rival known as "El Americano" because of his California birth, spent many years in El Paso, Texas.

Several young militia gunmen admitted to reporters in January to having been deported back to Mexico in recent years after US criminal charges or convictions. Many sport tattoos touting affiliation with US street gangs and brag they know how to handle weapons from their time in the gangs. The smell of marijuana hangs heavy at some of the militia checkpoints. But there is also a palpable sense of pride and excitement among many of these young gunmen. They're having fun. They are both proud to be doing something for their communities and caught up in the drama of the movement.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes

"Up there you might go see a movie," a 20-year old vigilante said of his years in southern California. "Here I am living it."13

It is clear that many in the militias also believe that they are serving their communities and are willing to break the law and to commit ugly acts to do so.

"The great heroes who gave us this country really weren't the best people," one senior militia leader told local media.

In the weeks following their founding the militias clashed several times with the Knights Templar, leaving as many as 30 dead on both sides. The initial bloodletting taught the militias some early tactical lessons, increased morale and raised confidence. Fighting eased briefly beginning in May 2013, when Peña Nieto sent 6,000 troops and federal police into the Tierra Caliente. The federal forces guarded the main highways, including the toll highway connecting the capital of Morelia to the port of Lazaro Cardenas. The lull gave the militias time and space to expand further into the Tierra Caliente and the nearby sierra, the new incursions spearheaded by gunmen from Buenavista, La Ruana and Tepalcatepec.

Knights Templar gunmen struck back in late July, opening fire on locals protesting in favor of the self-defense groups in Los Reyes, a town north of Apatzingan, killing five. Other Knights Templar cells attacked federal police patrols and offices across the state. Several dozen were killed, most of them Knights Templar members, according to the government. Still, the militia movement continued spreading to new municipalities.

Self-defense leaders say they only move into a new community after being invited by residents who have formed their own militia groups. The movement is overseen by a board, comprised of militia bosses from each of the communities, that reaches decisions by vote, leaders say. For instance, townspeople in Gambara, a village of poor farm workers near Apatzingan, opted to join the movement in February after militiamen called a meeting and explained the benefits to them. The Knights had not really bothered people in what is a poor town, where many work in the orchards and fields, Gambara's top elected official said. But residents hoped that by joining the self-defense forces they could be protected from any gangster backlash. A day after the vote, a dozen Gambara teenagers were manning checkpoints on the edge of town, assault rifles kept out of sight but within easy reach behind the sandbags.14

"People just want to be able to work without getting bothered so much," said Aaron Sanchez, an official in Nueva Italia, a large market town flanked by both Apatzingan and Gambara that militiamen captured in mid-January. "We've lived eight or nine years suffering [at the hands of] these people. They took away your neighbor, your cousin, your friends, who never came back. The government hasn't been able to deal with the situation so we as a people have had to."15

By this spring, the militias had taken control of 32 municipalities throughout western Michoacan and, as this went to press, they had identified several more for "liberation." The expansion, however, may run into problems, as the government retools its own response to the vigilantes.

The Mexican Government's Response: Bait and Switch

The Peña Nieto government scrambled and improvised its way through the first phase of this self-defense phenomenon but seemed to gain its footing as time passed. After first condemning the militias as criminals, the government all but ignored them through most of 2013, downplaying their advances and Michoacan's insecurity. That changed early this year as vigilantes seized towns and villages surrounding the Knights Templar bastion of Apatzingan, vowing to claim it as well. Fearing a bloodbath, the government dispatched thousands of troops and federal police to the Tierra Caliente region.

Once engaged, Peña Nieto's political operatives seem to have adeptly finessed the militia leaders, using many of the bait-and-switch strategies by which the president's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has governed Mexico for most of the past century. In mid-January, Peña Nieto named a trusted associate, former Mexico State Attorney General Alfredo Castillo, as his special envoy to Michoacan. Just 38 years old, Castillo has shouldered aside Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo (who had appeared powerless to stop the rising violence in the state) from any meaningful role, bringing in several dozen other federal officials who effectively took control of the state police, prosecutor's office and other agencies.

Castillo then dangled the bait, cutting a deal with militia leaders that created a legal framework for the groups in return for their cooperation with federal authorities. The fact that the framework was more half-measure than codified law mattered little. It was the de facto recognition that was important as it served to mollify what had become a spirited collective shout from the hilltops for help from the government. The security agreement forged by Castillo required militia leaders to register themselves and their weapons with federal authorities. And it outlined a procedure for them to be incorporated either into municipal police forces or temporary "rural defense corps" under the control of the army. Rural defense corps were militias first formed to control banditry in the 19th Century and played a role in defending cooperative farm communities following the Mexican Revolution. Formally regulated by the army, the corps all but disappeared.16

The government then announced a $3.4 billion spending plan in Michoacan aimed at creating jobs, improving education, building public works and public housing, bolstering household budgets, financing social development and building housing and public works projects.17 Within days militia leaders were showing reporters projects in their communities where the windfall could be directed.

Deputizing the militias and giving them a share of the public monies was a recognition of reality on the ground. Local and state government had long since lost credibility. The federal government could not, without creating a severe backlash, reverse the militia process. Despite their disparate backgrounds and opaque origins, the militias had inspired hope among many residents that the Knights Templar stranglehold on their communities could be broken. More importantly, in the year since they had emerged, the militias had done more to push back against organized crime than governments at every level had managed since La Familia had formed in the mid-2000s. The depth of the militias' popularity was evident at their one-year anniversary celebrations in late February, when thousands of townspeople turned out to cheer them in La Ruana, Tepalcatepec and other towns.18

"The government has never wanted to recognize that we could do the job that it never wanted to do," Mireles, the militia founder and leader, told one journalist later.19

For a time, the government also seemingly ignored the dark origins and criminal intentions of these groups and embraced the positive outcomes of their collective actions. Castillo, for instance, met privately with Juan Jose Farias, alias "El Abuelo," an alleged member of the Milenio Cartel and the brother of a former Tepalcatepec mayor who was among the officials jailed in the Michoacanzao. Farias is now a leader of that town's militia.

Vigilantes and federal forces also jointly seized some new towns together, entering in tandem or going in close behind one another. They manned highway checkpoints in unison, or within yards of one another. The government turned a blind eye to obvious transgressions: soldiers and police pretended not to notice the smell of marijuana that sometimes hovers above the sandbagged positions manned by the vigilantes; the militiamen, aware their weapons were technically illegal, started keeping them out of sight, and the government did not ask to see permits.

The security work took on a new formality and efficiency arguably unprecedented in the time since Calderon sent troops into Michoacan in 2006. Intelligence from the militias led to quick arrests or defections by Knights Templar foot soldiers, which led to a cascade of more intelligence. Those detained by the civilian gunmen at checkpoints were mostly turned over to federal police. In the end, working together, the vigilantes and authorities arrested hundreds of suspected Knights Templar and killed several others.

The high point of this relationship came on March 9, when authorities killed Nazario Moreno, the founder and ideologue of the Knights, who many thought was dead. By the end of March, Marines had also killed Enrique Plancarte, one of Moreno's two top operatives, and had the other, "La Tuta" Gomez, on the run. Just a few weeks later, the federal government took another bold step by arresting Jesús Reyna, Michoacán's interior minister, accusing him of working with the Knights Templar.20

However, after this successful period of working together, the government took the opportunity to make the switch. Perhaps feeling it now had the upper hand on the depleted Knights Templar or perhaps sensing that the self-defense groups were getting out of control, security forces have begun targeting the militias' leadership. Just a few days after Moreno was killed, authorities arrested militia leader Hipolito Mora accusing him of involvement in the murder of a rival in La Ruana. This came after Mora's rivals, lead by El Americano, had attacked Mora's home base, accusing him of the murder.

Mora's arrest has further divided the militia movement and driven a wedge between it and federal officials. Michoacan has since devolved into a low intensity four-front battle: militias fighting militias; militias fighting DTOs; militias fighting the federal security forces; federal security forces versus DTOs. There are more potential fighting forces that have been neutralized, such as the local municipal police, which may also enter the fray. The resulting chaos has terrifying implications that the government, and the Mexican populace, are only now beginning to comprehend.

The fighting also made it clear that any real incorporation of the militias into the police or rural defense corps is unlikely to happen. The government has not been able to keep pace with its own purge of police forces, much less to forge a new security force with the vigilantes. With regards to the Michoacan development projects, it was later revealed that much of the announced spending had already been budgeted. By early April, Castillo all but confirmed the sidelining of the militias.

"I am the first to recognize the bravery of the people who, in a genuine way, said 'enough!' and demanded the presence of the government," he told a radio station. "[But] the original argument [of the self-defense] groups in some places is no longer valid… Put simply, the situation has evolved."21

Castillo called for the militias to disarm and demobilize. Yet, as an arbitrary deadline he set approached, the federal government continued to play it both ways. In some areas, the militiamen remain armed and deployed, and they continued to work with government security forces. In late April militias backed by federal forces moved into three towns -- Huetamo, Arteaga and Tumbiscatio -- that had remained under the control of the Knights Templar. Then, after brief fighting between militiamen and supposed Knights Templar gunmen in Huetamo, near the Guerrero state line, federal forces arrested nearly four dozen men official said were criminals posing as vigilantes.22

Recent events, especially Mora's arrest, have deeply embittered many of the vigilantes, firming their resolve. While militia leaders talk about continuing to cooperate with federal officials, they also make it clear they are tiring of the Peña Nieto administration's duplicitous nature.

"If the government wants war, war it will have," Mireles told Proceso magazine a few days after Mora's arrest. "No one messes with Michoacan. Not even the damned government."23

The situation remains in flux, and the militias say they are showing no near-term intentions of giving up their weapons or their fight.

"There's no going back," Mireles explained to a Mexican journalist. "We have to continue."24

*This article is the first in a three-part report on Michoacan's Militias produced by the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and InSight Crime. See full report here. Download pdf here.

Endnotes

[1] Netzaí Sandoval, "Presunto narco busco incriminar a excomisionado de la Policía Federal," Revista Contralinea, 3 March 2013. Available at: http://contralinea.info/archivo-revista/index.php/2013/03/03/la-constitucionalidad-de-las-policias-comunitarias-de-guerrero/

[2] Martha Peral Salcido and Amor Ortega Dorantes, "Seguridad e Imparticion de Justicia Comunitaria Regional en la Costa Montaña de Guerrero: La Policía Comunitaria," Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), 2006. Available at: http://www.ciesas.edu.mx/proyectos/relaju/cd_relaju/Ponencias/Mesa%20Terven-Maldonado/OrtegaDorantesAmorPeralSalcidoMartha.pdf

[3] Ovemex, "Mexican Marines Reconstruct the Death of Don Alejo Garza," Borderland Beat, 22 November 2010. Available at: http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2010/11/mexican-marines-reconstruct-death-of.html

[4] See "Don Alejo Garza Tamez: El hombre que peleo hasta la muerte," available at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Don-Alejo-Garza-Tamez-El-hombre-que-peleo-hasta-la-muerte/104533106287075

[5] Elyssa Pachico, "Vigilantes Take Over Mexican Town," InSight Crime, 10 May 2011. Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/vigilantes-take-over-mexico-town

[6] Ronan Graham, "Mexico Navy Finds 32 Alleged Victims of 'Zeta Killers' in Veracruz," InSight Crime, 7 October 2011. Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/mexico-navy-finds-32-alleged-victims-of-zeta-killers-in-veracruz

[7] No author, "Detenidos 20 sicarios en Veracruz, incluidos presuntos autores de Matanzas," EFE, 7 October 2011. Available at: http://www.google.com/hostednews/epa/article/ALeqM5gdDtWLZfHXprTyJJxr4DgEsL2diA?docId=1624940&hl=es

[8] Dudley Althaus, "Can vigilante justice save Mexico?," GlobalPost, 1 February 2013. Available at: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/mexico/130201/mexico-vigilantes-law-justice-nieto-acapulco

[9] Interview by Luis Cardenas, "Responde Hipolito Mora, No le tengo miedo a El Tio Ni a Nadie, El Tio me da Risa: Le reponde al Tio," MVS Radio Network, 13 May 2013. Available at: http://narcconoticias.blogspot.mx/2013/05/audioentrevistano-le-tengo-miedo-el-tio.html

[10] David Vicenteño, "PGR: Cartel de Jalisco arma a grupos de autodefensa," Excelsior, 8 March 2013. Available at: http://www.excelsior.com.mx/2013/03/08/887952

[11] Dudley Althaus, "Confronting Mexico's Knights Templar cartel," GlobalPost, 4 June 2013. Available at: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/mexico/130602/coalcoman-Michoacán-drug-war-knights-templar-militia

[12] Rosa Santana, "Cártel de Jalisco armó a autodefensas: Murillo Karam," Proceso, 30 January 2014. Available at: http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=363688

[13] Althaus interview with militia, January 2014.

[14] Althaus interviews, February 2014.

[15] Althaus interview, January 2014.

[16] Francisco Medina, "La negra historia de la policia rural," Al Momento Noticias, 29 January 2014. Available at: http://www.almomento.mx/la-negra-historia-de-la-policia-rural/

[17] "Peña Nieto anuncia inversion de 3.400 millones de dólares para Michoacán," CNN/Mexico 4 February 2014. Available at: http://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2014/02/04/pena-nieto-anuncia-inversion-de-3-400-millones-de-dolares-para-reconstruir-michoacan/

[18] See video, "La Ruana Primer Aniversario Libres de Crimen," accessed on YouTube, 7 April 2014, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kbj1bUHSG-0

[19] Zayin Daleth Villevicencio interview with Mireles, RevolucionTresPuntoCero, 19 March 2014. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWcnjUhDITo

[20] "Arraiga la PGR a Jesus Reyna por posibles vinculos con el narco," Proceso, 5 April 2014. Available at: http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=368939

[21] Denise Maerker interview with Castillo, Radio Formula, 1 April 2014. Available at: http://www.radioformula.com.mx/notas.asp?Idn=401478&idFC=2014

[22] No author, "Suman 46 falsos autodefensas detenidos en Huetamo," El Universal, 22 April 2014. Available at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/2014/huetamo-autodefensas-michoacan-detenidos-1005151.html

[23] Castellanos, op cit.

[24] Zayin Daleth Villevicencio interview with Mireles, RevolucionTresPuntoCero, 19 March 2014. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWcnjUhDITo