Struggling to contain rapidly growing self-defense militias that threaten armed clashes with powerful criminal gangs, Mexico's federal government has brokered the hiring of an army special forces commander as public security czar in the central state of Michoacan.
Thursday's appointment of Brigadier General Alberto Reyes appears to mock President Enrique Peña Nieto's intent to soften the military-led anti-crime campaign begun by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. The governor of violent Guerrero, which neighbors Michoacan on Mexico's Pacific Coast and faces its own militia and gangster threats, this week named a navy admiral to head that state's security forces.
"We will seek to work in a coordinated way with the municipalities with the most problems at this moment," Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio told a television interviewer, adding that the appointed general would have control over local, state and federal forces in Michoacan. "I am convinced that in a short time control will be restored."
Calderon said much the same thing when he first dispatched troops to Michoacan, his home state, shortly after taking office in December 2006. The deployment set off pitched multi-sided battles between gangs and security forces that rage in much of northern Mexico and along both coasts to this day.
Home to the powerful criminal band the Familia Michoacana and its antagonistic offshoot, the Knights Templar, Michoacan remains one of Mexico's most insecure corners. So-called communitarian police forces, supposedly comprised of volunteers but some armed with outlawed assault weapons, have sprung up in many communities in recent months.
Knights Templar leaders have accused the community militias of working on behalf of the rival Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, which is aligned with the Sinaloa Federation of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The militias in turn have targeted municipal police and mayors, accusing them of working for the Knights Templar.
Despite their involvement in drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping, both the Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar have always defined themselves in Robin Hood terms, promising to protect state residents against outside gangs and other threats.
The security situation has worsened in the few weeks since Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo, a member of Peña's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who won office last year, took a leave of absence to deal with undisclosed health problems that required surgery.
Soldiers scrambled Thursday to close off access of outside militiamen to the town of Coalcoman, in Michoacan's tropical "hot lands" as some 300 volunteers reportedly gathered in its central plaza. Clashes between militiamen and security forces were reported, though there were no indications of casualties.
Insight Crime Analysis
Mexico's presidents have been increasingly militarizing the fight against organized crime since the mid-1990s, when President Ernesto Zedillo staffed key attorney general positions and much of the newly created uniformed federal police with soldiers.
While Michoacan and Guerrero are particularly troublesome at the moment, soldiers and marines have been dispatched to many corners of Mexico in the past six years as the violence persisted. Cities such as Tijuana, Juarez, Veracruz, and even sophisticated Monterrey have turned their police forces over to control by active duty or recently retired military officers.
Yet the continued heavy reliance on military officers and troops to take control of local, state, and federal police forces is telling in light of Peña Nieto's very public attempts to portray Mexico's bloody security crisis as on the mend.
To date, Peña Nieto's strategy-in-progress, which he recently said could only be judged after another year, has been to bring both the army and navy – with which U.S. law enforcement and security advisors worked directly – under tighter control of Osorio's Interior Ministry.
The ministry this month begins rolling out a national program of social services aimed at alleviating the poverty that helps feed the gangster ranks. And a 10,000 strong militarized police force, to be staffed by transferred soldiers and marines, is being formed this summer for deployment in some of Mexico's more perilous parts.
But such measures, and the creation of police forces able to take on the gangs, will take years at best to bear fruit. In the meantime, Peña Nieto will find the military his best and perhaps only option, much as did Calderon.
The US supported raids by navy and army special forces against priority gangster targets apparently have ceased. But troops are still patrolling, and clashing often enough with the gangs.
"We haven't changed things," General Salvador Cienfuegos, the defense minister, told reporters in Durango. "It's only that we are avoiding confrontations with the criminals where there are people who have nothing to do with the problem. That makes us less visible, but we are the same and are getting good results."
The defense ministry announced this week that soldiers had arrested nearly 3,500 suspected gangsters since Peña Nieto took office. The ministry didn't release numbers of gangsters killed by soldiers or the troops casualties.