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Well-armed vigilantes in Mexico's Michoacan state have helped authorities dismantle a powerful criminal organization, but now the government may have a more difficult task: keeping Michoacan safe from the vigilantes and rival criminal groups. Read More
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Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico's Mixed Response to Vigilantes

  • Written by Dudley Althaus
  • Thursday, 13 February 2014
Members of Michoacan self-defense militias Members of Michoacan self-defense militias

The reach of southwestern Mexico's self-defense militias has swelled in recent weeks, but while in some parts of the country they have been aided by federal forces, in others they have been blocked, raising questions as to what lies behind this divergent approach.

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On February 8, militiamen backed by federal troops and police occupied the city of Apatzingan, widely considered the bastion of the Knights Templar criminal organization. Vigilantes are now manning checkpoints on the city's edge and pointing out suspected Knights members.

Meanwhile, gunmen loyal to one of Guerrero's two rival militias have seized villages on the outskirts of the state capital, Chilpancingo. Mexico City has dispatched additional troops and police to stop them from moving into the city itself.

This contrasting approach -- carrots in Michoacan, sticks in Guerrero -- underscores the federal government's patchwork assessment of a threat that has little or nothing to do with drug trafficking.

The militias, like President Enrique Peña himself, are focused on eradicating the crimes that most affect ordinary Mexicans, principally extortion, kidnapping, and armed robbery.

"Drug trafficking is always going to continue," said Neftali Villagomez, a 66-year-old butcher who commands hundreds of vigilantes in Tierra Colorada, a market town 35 miles north of the gangster-besieged resort town of Acapulco.

"We aren't against drug traffickers," he said. "We are against organized crime."

Showing similar ambivalence, Peña Nieto's strategy appears to be aimed at restoring a delicate political balance in states where organized crime has played a significant role for decades, rather than crippling the drug trade or those who profit from it.

In Michoacan, Peña Nieto's special security envoy, Alfredo Castillo, is scrambling to explain his recent closed-door chat with a man federal prosecutors link to the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG). Analysts, including Mexico's attorney general, have accused the CJNG of supplying weapons to Michoacan's self-defense forces.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Jalisco Cartel

Castillo met briefly last week with Juan Jose Farias, alias "El Abuelo," who federal officials in 2009 identified as a top member of the Valencia clan, also known as the Milenio Cartel, an organization that was once of the region's main criminal players.

A Mexican army report at the time Farias was arrested identified him as a principal perpetrator of the violence that erupted in 2006 when La Familia Michoacana -- the group that spawned the Knights Templar -- battled to drive the Zetas out of Michoacan.

Another alleged former Valencia leader, Nemesio Oseguera, alias "El Mencho," now heads the CJNG, and authorities believe he is a longtime ally of Farias.

Farias' brother, Uriel, is a former mayor of Tepalcatepec, one of three Michoacan towns that spawned the militia movement last February. Uriel Farias was arrested in May 2009 as part of a failed crackdown on 12 allegedly corrupt Michoacan mayors and two dozen other officials accused of working for the Familia. Farias, along with every other official, was eventually released.

Meanwhile, in Guerrero, the official reaction to militia groups is decidedly more convoluted. Governor Angel Aguirre at last has agreed to long delayed negotiations with militia leaders over formalizing the groups' legal status and increasing economic aid to their rural communities.

Aguirre has had a mixed relationship with the militias, known there as community police. He helped create them in the mid-1990s when serving as interim governor for Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Now, representing the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), Aguirre has bestowed favor on some community police groups while dealing harshly with others. In the past year, he has jailed a handful of militia leaders deemed too politically ambitious.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes

Aguirre's wrangling with the militias has intensified since January 28, when gunmen unsuccessfully ambushed Pioquinto Damian, the politically well-connected leader of Chilpancingo's merchant's association.

The attack on Damian's vehicle came little more than an hour after he publicly accused Chilpancingo Mayor Mario Moreno of being a "narco" and permitting rampant extortion and kidnapping by Los Rojos, a local gang that sprang from the once mighty Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO).

Damian escaped the attack unscathed, though his unarmored SUV was hit by more than 100 bullets. His daughter-in-law, riding in the front passenger seat usually occupied by Damian, was killed and his son, behind the wheel, was slightly injured.

Moreno, who hopes to win Guerrero's governorship in next year's elections on the PRI ticket, denies Damian's allegations. He contends Damian has "tremendous" psychological issues and is acting on behalf of unnamed political enemies.

A former schoolteacher, Damian once was the PRI's second ranking official in Guerrero and served as state education secretary under Aguirre in the 1990s. After deserting the PRI along with Aguirre and others, he was elected on the PRD's ticket to represent Chilpancingo in Mexico's Congress.

Aguirre is the godfather of Damian's 34-year-old son, while Damian's daughter is a top aide to a son of the governor.

But Damian now appears to have allied with Bruno Placido, leader of the Union of Towns and Organizations of Guerrero (UPOEG), a group among the more radical of Guerrero's militia organizations. That likely puts him at odds with the governor.

Scores of UPOEG militiamen, most of them armed with old 20-gauge shotguns, in recent weeks have taken control of El Ocotito and other farm villages close to Chilpancingo. Last week, they closed the expressway linking Mexico City to Acapulco to press demands for concessions from the state government.

"What we seek is for the drug traffickers to stop messing with the population," Damian said during an interview in a fourth floor apartment on Chilpancingo's central plaza, where he and his family have been under state police guard since the attack. "What we want is harmony, social peace."

InSight Crime Analysis

It seems that gang-busting, like politics, is all local.

Michoacan is where Mexico's criminal warfare began seven years ago. Ending the crisis there holds high symbolic as well as strategic importance for the Peña Nieto government. Guerrero, where the violence is even worse than in Michoacan, does not hold the same importance for Mexican planners.

Destroying the drug trade in either state is not really part of the conversation.

Peña Nieto vowed upon taking office that he was going to attack the crimes that have the most impact on ordinary Mexicans. In Michoacan, Guerrero and many other places, that means kidnapping, extortion and other predatory crimes. Last year, this entailed going after the leadership of the violent Zetas criminal organization, based along the South Texas border. Now it means finishing off the Knights Templar in Michoacan.

But it does not mean sorting out the mess in Guerrero.

Violence racks the state's northern reaches, Acapulco and the Pacific coast, and everywhere in between. Massacres, mass graves and migration spurred by the fighting are common. Community police now operate in more than half of Guerrero townships.

But Guerrero's gangs, mostly remnants of the organization controlled by the late Arturo Beltran Leyva, are smaller and have less reach than either the Knights or the Zetas. Therefore they are less of a priority for Mexico City.

Additionally, while Peña Nieto's PRI recently reclaimed Michoacan from the PRD and intends to hold on to the state in next year's elections, the PRD seems solidly in control of Guerrero's statehouse.

With little political or strategic advantage to be gained by weighing into Guerrero's problems, it seems that while Michoacan grabs the headlines and the full attention of the federal government, Guerrero remains adrift.

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