Mexico’s Vigilantes: A Defining Question for Peña Nieto

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The violent state of Michoacan continues to be the largest stone in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s shoe as he attempts to drag Mexico’s image as a blood-filled crime cauldron towards that of a peaceful, progressive industrial power.

Faced with apparently unstoppable fighting between community militias and the meth-trafficking Knights Templar gang, Peña Nieto has dispatched thousands of troops to the Pacific coastal state’s sweltering lowlands to ward off what seems like a brewing civil war.

The Mexican leader has named a close associate, former consumer protection chief, Alfredo Castillo, as pro-consul, pushing aside Michoacan’s hapless governor, Fausto Vallejo. Castillo has promised to solve the state’s insecurity by the years’ end.

Such vows have been made — and mocked — frequently through the seven years since then-President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops and police to Michoacan to bring the gangsters to heel.

Few here see this time as any different.

“The statements differ greatly from the facts,” Miguel Patiño, the Archbishop of Michoacan, declared last week in an open letter published on January 15. “We ask that the politicians, the government, the interior minister give the towns of this area clear signals that they really want to stop this killing machine.

“The people expect a more efficient action from the government against those who are causing this chaos,” Patiño wrote, referring to the Templars. 

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong last week first demanded that the self-defense militias disarm but then changed course after soldiers killed two villagers protesting the attempt to take the vigilantes’ guns.

Militia gunmen, a number of them US-bred young men recently returned home to Michoacan, some deported following convictions for various crimes, continue patrolling towns and villages surrounding the Templars’ bastion of Apatzingan. 

The militiamen and soldiers exchange muted waves, or thrust chins upward in greeting as they pass one another in the streets and rural roads. Many of the militiamen, low wage fruit pickers, factory hands, field laborers in their former lives, clearly relish their role as community defenders and the respect they’re now given.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Vigilantes

“I was born here, I have family here,” said Jorge Rios, 22, a onetime tire repairman deported from Tucson a few years ago who has risen as something of a leader of a militia squad occupying the farm market town of Nueva Italia, 20 miles east of Apatzingan.

“It’s in my heart and in my blood,” he said of Michoacan. “We are doing this for our towns.”

Underscoring that mission, on January 16, self-defense leaders returned avocado orchards confiscated by the Templars in recent years to dozens of their rightful owners. 

Hundreds of federal troops patrol Apatzingan itself, preventing the militias from trying to capture the city of 125,000 people. Templars have torched businesses and city hall in a display of their own power, focusing on national chain stores that reportedly refuse to pay extortion to the gang.

Such actions have turned many against the gang, which, like the militias, professes to guard the well-being of Michoacan’s people. Few here begrudged the gang’s meth business, an international business that stretches into the United States. They became outraged by relentless extortion, kidnapping and theft.

“I know these people. Their cause is just,” Gregorio Lopez, a priest who works out of the Apatzingan bishop’s office, told Insight Crime of the militia gunmen and their supporters. “After 12 years of abuse, they were just fed up.”

The militia commanders insist they won’t disarm unless security forces dismantle the Templars once and for all, including arresting or killing the seven men they say lead the gang. Government officials have said they can’t locate the gang bosses. But reporters last week toured the swanky mansion of Templar capo Enrique Plancarte in Nueva Italia.

On the evening of January 16, militiamen detained a man said to work for Plancarte at a checkpoint on the edge of Nueva Italia. Pulling him from a car in front of his wife and toddler, the militiamen forced the suspect to the ground, pulling his t-shirt over his head and kicking him in the chest. The man was later turned over to federal police for questioning.

“We’ve lived eight or nine years suffering these people,” said a heavy-set masked man who had fingered the supposed Templar. “They took away your neighbor, your cousin, your friends, who never returned.

“What just happened was a caress, nothing in comparison [to what the Templars do],” he said of the suspect’s beat-down.

Such actions have fueled fears that the militias themselves could become an abusive force in Michoacan’s so-called “Tierra Caliente” (Hot Country), which is anchored by Apatzingan.

Some press reports, particularly those in the Mexican media, have become critical of the militias. Many fear they could mirror Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries, which in the 1980s began as militias paid to defend ranches and communities from leftist guerrillas, but transformed into cocaine trafficking gangsters themselves.

Government officials, who winked as the self-defense groups grew stronger these past 11 months, now feed those fears as they seek to rein in the militiamen.

“You can begin with a genuine cause, but when you start taking control, making decisions and feeling authoritative…you run the risk of getting to that point,” Castillo, the federal government’s new boss in Michoacan, told journalist Carmen Aristegui

InSight Crime Analysis

Officials and citizens alike are right to fear the potential for Michoacan’s militias to become something malicious. That’s been the case in movements from Colombia’s paramilitaries to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the warlords of the Congo.

Vigilantes are no substitute for the rule of law. Untrained youths with high-powered guns can’t replace professional police and prosecutors.

Still, pious warnings from bureaucrats like Castillo ring more than a little hollow.

The militias were formed here following years of failed and half-hearted government efforts to do anything about the Knights Templar and other gangs who have terrorized and preyed upon Michoacan. Gang bosses like Plancarte hide in plain sight, protected by paid off or fearful officials at every level.

Peña Nieto and his aides have been promising to solve Michoacan’s crisis since they took office 14 months ago. They’re promising still. Who can blame people in Michoacan for not believing them?

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A military occupation of Michoacan isn’t the answer either. Rather than arresting the Templars, the soldiers and militarized police merely patrol and man checkpoints, and seem more like scarecrows than the region’s saviors.

Mexico’s current violence, which in seven years has killed some 80,000 people and left 25,000 more missing, can largely be laid at the feet of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last century.

Organized crime flourished under the PRI’s deeply corrupt regime. It grew infinitely stronger when Mexico became a major corridor for South American cocaine smuggled to US consumers in the 1990s.

Peña Nieto’s 2012 election returned the PRI to power after a dozen year hiatus. He and his aides portray themselves as the clean and hardworking face of a reformed party. They’ve worked hard to change the conversation about Mexico from criminal carnage to economic opportunity.

If federal officials fail to solve the questions surrounding Michoacan now, those efforts will be laughable. And should the militias turn into yet another scourge for Mexico’s people, it will be on the heads of Peña Nieto and his aides.

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