The desperation in Michoacan, as in many parts of Mexico, with regards to organized crime has led to a myopic view of this issue. In the short term, it produced, through the militias at least, a temporary solution to the immediate problem: the Knights Templar. In the medium to long term, however, it may have opened up space for another set of criminal actors and complicated the government’s job of establishing rule of law in Michoacan.
Proponents of the self-defense groups argue there was no alternative for them. They may be right. As noted, the Knights Templar controlled political representatives and municipal budgets. They extorted and kidnapped at will, employed the police to their own ends. In some places, they may have been committing mass rapes and other horrendous crimes such as organ trafficking. The general population had been, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by local, state and federal authorities. The response of militia groups was historic. Together, they overcame the fear, armed themselves and began to take action against a large, sophisticated criminal organization that had terrorized them for years. Once the federal government sent troops and federal police to the area, this process accelerated. In relatively short order, the Knights Templar organization has been beheaded, its core shattered.
However, the rush to celebrate the militias’ advances obscures a number of important issues that neither officials nor the groups’ champions have fully faced. Top of the list is the critical question of mandate. While the militias unified in their desire to rid their communities of kidnapping and extortion — and on the immediate task of ridding themselves of the Knights Templar — that is as far as they have gotten in terms of strategy. There is no sense of jurisdiction, job description or overall goals. Nor is there consensus on how the militias should interact with authorities. To be sure, some militias still see the government, especially local and state officials, as the central problem. In some cases, they draw a distinction between local and federal authorities, further complicating matters.
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.
There is also little tradition anchoring this militia surge. Volunteer community police in indigenous communities were developed over many years and have hierarchy and structure that imposes internal discipline and a developed system of punishment for criminals. The anti-Knights Templar militias emerged in primarily non-indigenous communities, coming together quickly and haphazardly. Their success reflects many things: popular support, official backing, good weaponry, courage and gumption are among them; but organization, coherence and viable centralized command are not.
Questions also remain about the motivations of the militias’ participants. There are at least four distinct militia models in Michoacan. The first is of the type that appeared in Cheran — indigenous communities who have a longer history and experience creating and maintaining organized vigilante groups. The second comes from a poor rural and semi-urban background, which have organized around protecting their small business and family interests. The third model is backed by larger, industrial-sized interests. The fourth is backed by other criminal groups. There are probably mixtures of all these groups as well working together, at least temporarily.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes
Each of the groups have different motivations, which may not be evident while they confront a common enemy. However, once that enemy is vanquished, their differing agendas will inevitably rise to the fore and, in some cases, already have. These agendas will inevitably garner legitimate political support, but these groups also wield weapons, giving them an unfair advantage in what is supposed to be a democratic arena ruled by ballots, not bullets.
What’s more, few if any of the militias seem interested in facing up to one of the central problems plaguing Michoacan and Mexico: illegal drug trafficking. The Knights Templar, like La Familia Michoacana before it, rose to national prominence primarily via the production and sale of crystal methamphetamine and other illegal drugs. However, militia leaders show little interest in confronting the problem. In fact, they seem to separate it from their own situation, naively calling it “the federal government’s job.”
“We aren’t going to go looking for laboratories because that’s not our responsibility. We don’t want there to be kidnappings, disappearances, extortion,” Estanislao Beltran, a lime grower known as “Papa Pitufo” and frequent militia spokesman, said in February. “We aren’t going to decide what each citizen does, everyone is free to do what they wish, what suits them.
“There are entire towns that in one way or the other belonged to organized crime,” Beltran said, arguing the impossibility of ending the local drug industry. “As self-defense forces are we going to chase them off, kill them or lock them up?”1
Given this position, the laissez faire attitude towards other criminal organizations is not surprising. To a certain degree, Michoacan’s own complicated, long-term relationship with criminal groups is also something that is largely ignored in this story. The state’s agricultural booms and busts are often smoothed over by criminal proceeds, which finance transport companies, construction projects and local festivals, among other economic and social schemes. The convergence of politics and crime is as much a result of the criminals’ rise in capital gains as it is a result of their wielding weapons.
The intersection of the licit and the illicit is at the center of what makes Michoacan, and much of Mexico, work. According to the government, nearly 35 percent of Michaocan’s employed are working in the “informal” economy.2 In addition, the state’s migration agency says three million Michoacan natives are living in the United States, many of them illegally.3 About a million of them live in Southern California alone.4 The Diaspora provides a ready distribution network for Michoacan’s drug gangs and more recently its militias. But it also has placed the state among Mexico’s most important recipients of remittances. In sum, there are degrees of illegal, making the job of separating good guys from bad guys that much more difficult. Add to the equation high-powered weapons, competing agendas, and political competition, and the challenge of keeping the peace begins to come into focus.
Despite the bleak picture, the situation is not as bad yet as in other countries where militia and paramilitary groups have appeared. As to be expected, since nearly the time the first self-defense groups emerged in Michoacan in 2013, there have been apt comparisons between the militias in Mexico and those in Colombia. For starters, their origins, makeup and politics are similar. Their financial backers are varied and include criminal groups. Their relationship with the government has evolved in a way that resembles that of Colombia, although the military in Colombia took a much more active role in organizing the first groups. The context in which these groups emerged is also similar. While the Knights Templar are not a guerrilla group per se, they are an ideological organization that sees itself as the protector of the communities in its areas of influence. They have created a strict hierarchy and have implemented discipline similar to that of the insurgents in Colombia. And they draw from some of the same revenue streams, namely kidnapping and extortion, which have turned the same communities they claim to protect against them.
However, while this is a good starting point in terms of creating an analytical structure to understand these groups, it is does not tell us what the future holds. The militias do not yet have the organization, discipline, reach and political wherewithal of the Colombian paramilitaries. Nor do most of them have access or desire to control the means of production and distribution of cocaine. They are decidedly less organized and not yet politically savvy enough to transfer their military victories into municipal or national power. In addition, while they have coalesced around a single issue, they have shown no sign of creating a unified command structure that could spread the model and the message to other parts of the country.
In the end, the militias remain a nascent, relatively small facsimile of what Colombia’s paramilitaries became. They have shown little cohesiveness and seem to have lost their way following the victories against their common enemy. The result of this apparent fragmentation is not yet clear, but the dangers of opening space to violent non-state actors, even those with the best of intentions, is all too evident.
Conclusion: Now What?
The self-defense forces have illuminated numerous important aspects about Mexico, some of which were self-evident and some of which were not. Among the self-evident aspects was the fact that the State had abandoned many Mexican citizens. This is most apparent at the local level where police and local government officials are either co-opted or too afraid to challenge the authority of powerful criminal groups like the Knights Templar.
The Mexican government is in the process of trying to change this equation, but progress is slow and, for some, relief has not come fast enough. The purging and restocking of local police has been uneven at best. Judicial reform has sputtered along. And efforts to hold municipal authorities accountable are out of touch with the reality on the ground that these authorities have little recourse when faced with well-armed criminal groups.
What was surprising was the depth of frustration and the lengths to which civilians were ready to go in order to deal with these issues on their own. While there was a history of self-defense organizations, the threats they had faced were far smaller in nature. The speed with which these new organizations coalesced, even under extremely dangerous circumstances, was startling. There were certainly outside forces involved in that initial push to organize, but their ability to limit casualties on their own side while taking bold actions against the Knights Templar proved crucial in those initial stages and seemed to accelerate the growth of these groups.
It was also not clear that an alliance of armed community members and the government could deal directly with a large, seemingly entrenched criminal organization. However, in just a few months, the alliance has proved to be a powerful means of quickly undoing a large criminal group. In the end, it has both decapitated the Knights Templar and depleted its forces via arrests and desertions.
Now comes the hard part: figuring what to do with the self-defense groups. There are at least three options. The first one is to delegitimize and disarm the groups. The government appears to be moving in this direction. Special Envoy Castillo’s statement seems to confirm the federal government, at least, believes the Michoacan experiment has run its course. However, there is a risk of backlash that could quickly devolve into violent clashes, and militia leaders have already hinted at this prospect. What’s more, there is the possibility that the Knights Templar could return, or their rivals from the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion – CJNG) could fill the void left by the Knights Templar’s departure. In order to remove the militias from the equation, the federal government will have to show it can maintain low levels of violence, kidnapping and extortion. But as mentioned earlier, in six years of governing, the Calderon administration found that task impossible. And statistics from the first three months of 2014, show homicides up 55 percent compared to the first three months of 2013.5
The second option the government has is to try to formally integrate the self-defense organizations into their security strategy. This has already begun, but the current framework is incomplete. A new framework would have to go through Congress and have to include creating clearer rules for toting guns, registering their members, defining jurisdiction, establishing their role, creating regular channels of communication and other means to keep a watchful eye on the vigilantes. The positive results of the militia’s participation in security matters cannot be ignored, nor can their potential for becoming exactly what they say they are fighting. However, this option would be a political gamble that the Peña administration does not appear willing to make just yet.
The third option the government has is to react to the militias individually rather than collectively. This may be the most likely option, particularly if the first option leads to a violent backlash. To date, the government has mostly employed this tactic, negotiating and incorporating some militias — regardless of origin — and shunning, and even prosecuting others. This position has served the government so far. When it needs to, it can distance itself from the groups. However, when the militias serve their interests, they can work together, as they have to clear areas of the Knights Templar. The ambiguity also gives the government solid political leverage with both the militias and those maneuvering around them. The message is clear: behave and get security force and possibly public monies; cross the government and receive no support and possibly criminal charges.
What position the government takes is crucial. There are other groups in other regions that are watching closely, possibly preparing their own militia movements. And how the government handles Michoacan may set the tone for what happens in the rest of the country, particularly embattled states such as Tamaulipas and Guerrero.
Regardless of how it deals with the militias, the government has to rebuild the social contract. The contract goes beyond security matters. With the agreement reached by Castillo, the government has said it is going to improve education, job opportunities and social spending. Such promises are frequently made in Mexico and just as frequently prove short-lived. The need for these economic and social programs persists, especially in rural areas from which the Knights Templar and militias have drawn recruits. Only with sustained investment in growth and opportunity will the government break the spell of the criminal lifestyle in the Tierra Caliente where, as one grade school principal recently explained, even young children want to be gangsters when they get older.6
In sum, the militia movement was a cry for help from an abandoned land, and the startling results offer positive and negative lessons for the future. On the positive side is the obvious fact that the Knights Templar are not the threat they were just a year ago. Communities and government officials have also learned that combining their forces is far more effective than working on their own. On the negative side, the militias represent a work in progress, something that could morph into another criminal actor, subverting security and democracy alike; and the government has given mixed signals about how it will control this potential menace. To date, this tension has not led to any major confrontations, and the government appears to have placated enough Michoacan self-defense groups to keep order. However, it is still early in this post-Knights Templar period.
*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.
 Cambio de Michoacan, “En Michoacan suman 636 mil personas en la economía informal,” 15 May 2012. Available at: https://www.cambiodeMichoacan.com.mx/vernota.php?id=174292
 “Hay 3 millones de Michoacanos en EU,” Periódico AM, 11 July 2013. Available at: https://www.am.com.mx/leon/local/hay-3-millones-de-Michoacanos-en-eu-30969.html
 Hector Becerra, “To fight the cartel, Mexican emigrants return to their hometowns,” Los Angeles Times, 25 January 2014. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-Michoacan-la-20140126,0,6737335.story#ixzz2yFoDcG8J
 Omar Sánchez de Tagle, “Aumentan homicidios en Michoacan, pese a comisión,” Animal Político, 23 April 2014. Available at: https://www.animalpolitico.com/2014/04/pese-comision-de-seguridad-aumentan-55-homicidios-en-Michoacan/#axzz2zjBKveV5