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Who Turned Out the Lights on Michoacan, Mexico?

Remnants of attack on power plant in Michoacan Remnants of attack on power plant in Michoacan

A series of violent confrontations and seemingly indiscriminate attacks on local infrastructure has provoked questions about the governability of the western Mexican state of Michoacan, and has some politicians calling for extreme measures.

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On October 27, a group of assailants attacked at least three gas stations and ten power plants with firearms and Molotov cocktails. The attacks killed no one, but they left thousands of residents in some of the principal cities, including the capital of Morelia, without power. Authorities have since alleged that the Knights Templar, currently the state’s most powerful criminal group and an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana that emerged in 2011, was behind the attack.

The assaults against the state’s providers of electricity and gas come just five days after the return of Fausto Vallejo to the governor’s post, after an absence of six months for an undisclosed illness. Vallejo’s return sparked controversy; journalists reported that the interim governor, Jesus Reyna, did not want to relinquish the post, and deputies in the state legislature called for Vallejo to be denied his old position. 

The turmoil in the governor’s seat, the attacks against the basic energy infrastructure, and the ongoing drumbeat of criminal violence have led some in Mexico City to question the viability of the Michoacan government. The National Action Party bloc in the national Chamber of Deputies announced days later that it was considering pursuing a declaration of “Desaparicion de Poderes,” or “Disappearance of Powers,” a seldom-used provision of the Mexican constitution which would essentially grant the federal government the right to take over the local government. 

Thus far, however, the proposal has gone nowhere, and political analysts give the move slim chances of passing.

InSight Crime Analysis

The attacks against the power plants and the gas stations represent another escalation by the various armed actors in Michoacan. In recent months, the Knights Templar have used a series of novel tactics to advance their interests, such as blockading towns controlled by the local vigilante groups that oppose them. Like those efforts, this latest act seems to target the convenience and wellbeing of the civilian population.

But the October 27 attacks also appear to be a message to the government. The timing is striking in that the attacks come on the heels of Vallejo’s return; this could be an attempt to intimidate the newly active executive. It’s also noteworthy that the power plants and gas stations are both controlled by prominent state-owned companies -- the gas stations operate under the brand name Pemex, while the power stations belong to the Comision Federal de Electricidad -- which suggests that the attacks were an assertion of power directed at the state. 

Michoacan’s situation is unusual in that it has spilled out of the security realm, and has helped provoke a full-blown political crisis. The clearest examples are the rumors of a federal takeover and the mysterious hiatus, and tumultuous return, of Vallejo. Additionally, Luisa Maria Calderon, the sister of former President Felipe Calderon and the runner-up to Vallejo in the 2011 election, accused the governor’s family of links to organized crime. She added that he negotiated with drug trafficking groups prior to winning the election.

Certainly, there are prior examples of a security crisis morphing into a political scandal. For instance, just after the massive attack on Monterrey's Casino Royale in 2011, a video hit the airwaves in which the brother of city mayor Fernando Larrazabal appeared to be accepting kickbacks from local casinos. This led to a widespread lack of confidence and a wave of calls for him to step aside, though Larrazabal remains in his post.

However, such cases are rare. Generally, there is a degree of separation between public security and political legitimacy. Political officials have only occasionally been targeted in corruption probes related to organized crime, and the political class (especially in Mexico City) has often been accused of not paying enough attention to security issues. Moreover, in many of the most notorious locales, grave deteriorations in security have not even provoked changes in the incumbent party. In that sense, Michoacan is an outlier.

This is even more so the case when one considers that, notwithstanding its reputation, Michoacan is not a terribly violent state. According to the National System of Public Security, the state registered a homicide rate of roughly 19 per 100,000 residents during 2011 and 2012, which is less than the national average. Through the first nine months of 2013, the state had an annualized rate of 21, which is slightly north of the national rate this year, but falls short of the most violent states.

Unfortunately, both of the major realms of activity that affect public security -- the government and the criminal groups -- appear to be wracked by instability. It is not clear what the recent upheaval in Michoacan promises for the state, but there is little hope for an enduring security improvement, and an end to the nuisance attacks from the Knights Templar, without deep changes to this prevailing dynamic.

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