Recent reports of fierce fighting between community police groups and a Mexican gang offer a window into the potential threat of vigilante groups to organized crime.
As reported by El Universal late last month, members of the Knights Templar squared off against community vigilante organizations operating in three cities in the southwestern state of Michoacan: Buenavista Tomatlan, Tepalcatepec and Apatzingan. The fighting resulted in at least 14 deaths and an unknown number of wounded.
The groups first made the news in March, when 37 members of the community police in Buenavista Tomatlan were arrested by the army. The vigilantes were subsequently accused of taking over the formal municipal police station, where they were holding the local chief and five of his officers captive, under suspicion that they were working with local drug traffickers (presumably the Knights Templar). The army also confiscated an unknown number of firearms and removed three highway blockades.
More recently, one of the leaders of the Knights Templar released a video accusing vigilantes — called “communitarian police” in the video — of killing innocents, and challenged them to a “death match.” (Watch the video below).
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Such an outbreak of violence reflects the growing tension and instability stemming from the increased activity of the vigilante groups. The government has reacted both with attempts to dialogue and attempts to delegitimize the community groups. Similarly, the criminal groups threatened by their existence have responded both with attempts to delegitimize the community groups and with acts of open confrontation, such as the bloodletting mentioned above. In short, while both are unsettled, neither the government nor the criminal groups seem to have settled on the best response to such community police organizations.
For the criminals, the Knights Templar represent the group most threatened by the community vigilantes, and the latest incident reflects an ongoing campaign to push the groups from the scene.
The Knights’ efforts have included a multi-faceted public relations campaign. Last month, a series of messages, often referred to as narco-mantas, appeared around Michoacan with accusations that the vigilantes were little more than a front for the Jalisco Cartel–New Generation (known as the CJNG, for its initials in Spanish), one of the Knights’ local rivals. The mantas, which were addressed to President Enrique Peña Nieto and appeared in the state’s three largest cities, accused the community police of engaging in kidnapping and extortion.
The mantas preceded another address to the authorities, as the leader of the Knights Templar, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, also released a video late last month, a day before the round of killings. In the 14-minute video, Gomez, who over the past several years has periodically granted interviews to address issues relating to security policy in Michoacan, called on Peña Nieto to limit the operation of the community groups. He also accused Fausto Vallejo, Michoacan’s governor and a member of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, of ignoring his security responsibilities, leaving space open for the growth of the vigilantes.
Community security groups have emerged in a number of Mexican states, but in none have they appeared to conflict so directly with the interests of established criminal groups as they have in Michoacan. This reflects something of the unique nature of the Knights Templar among the larger collection of Mexican criminal groups.
Since the community police have emerged as responses to criminality and insecurity, friction with local traffickers was inevitable, and much of the recent conflict in Michoacan stems from the two sides’ irreconcilable interests.
But it goes beyond that. Unlike many of the more established criminal groups like the Sinaloa Cartel of the Gulf Cartel, which are more overtly profit-based, the Knights have always painted themselves as the protectors of the people in Michoacan. They emerged as part of the Familia Michoacana around 2006, largely in opposition to outside groups like the Zetas; their victory left the state’s underworld in the hands of local criminals. The group operated under a moral and quasi-religious veneer, in which they outlawed drug use and kidnapping. The supposed truth behind all of this is that the Knights (and their predecessor, the Familia) are different in that they are a force for good.
The emergence of the community police groups reveals the Knights’ pretensions as empty. If the group’s self-identity were genuine, there would be no need for community groups, because the Knights alone would be enough to guarantee some modicum of security. Of course, this is silly; the Knights have intimidated and preyed on the local population as virtually all criminal groups in Mexico do. The community groups reflect a popular frustration with the Knights that is comparable to that of all populations terrorized by criminal groups. And as long as the two blocs are competing for the same space, the Knights’ assaults of the past month, both in the media and on the streets, will likely continue.