At Large

Mexico Every Way But Loose

Vigilantes are going after the drug gangs.

By 2.10.14

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There was a time when Morelia, the capital of Michoacán State, would be a tourist destination for anyone visiting Mexico City just over 300 miles away. Morelia was the still preserved colonial city of quaint shops and fruit stalls — all dominated by the town’s rose-colored baroque cathedral. This was the quiet and quaint Mexican city that the tourism ministry wanted all foreigners to perceive as representing true Mexico. Today this beleaguered town may still represent Mexico, but in a very different manner.

The physical charm of Michoacán remains the same with its Pacific coastline matched against alternating rocky heights and green fields. The verdant fertility of the countryside often carried the perfume of citrus groves and avocado crops. Now the same green fields dominate but also hold rivaling stretches of marijuana planting and hidden meth labs. It’s definitely not a good tourist destination: Every inch is being fought over by the large landowners and the dueling drug traffickers who have raped the countryside.

To understand what has happened to this once peaceful farming province one has to go back ten years or more when the marijuana business was a lucrative but relatively minor sideline of the Gulf cartel operating with local farmers. As the profits rose, so did the local conflicts. Enforcers were brought in to “arrange” things. This was the beginning period of Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel’s new strong-arm section recruited originally from former Mexican Army Special Forces veterans. Soon, however, the new group was in brutal independent battles with an older local drug producing and transporting organization. This older narcotics entity called itself La Familia Michoacana (LFM) and they had their hands full fending off the ruthlessly violent Zetas. The Gulf cartel nonetheless had lost control of its peaceful narcotics sinecure. The turf war was on even as the Zetas became increasingly independent.

The battling spread as the traffickers fought against each other, the local farmers, indigenous criminal gangs and eventually Army units sent in by President Felipe Calderon seeking to bring some security to his home state, Michoacán. Morelia, the peaceful little capital, became overwhelmed with murderous gangs practicing all types of criminality from robbery to extortion. The Army cracked down and brought some order to the state, but that was after the near total disruption of the historic quiet cultural structure of Michoacán’s agriculturally-based life.

La Familia increased its hold on Michoacán through the leadership of Nazano Moreno. LFM reportedly even built a sizeable distribution network in the United States. However, with the death of Moreno in January 2011, two of his under-chiefs formed a quasi-religious organization called Knights Templar that formed a connection with the Sinaloa Federation cartel. LFM was not able to maintain its power base, though it still continued to exist in a diminished form.

The next step in this bloody and multi-sided power struggle was taken by vigilante groups made up initially of tough former migrant workers in the U.S. funded by the more well-off landowners and farmers. These new groups were well-armed and motivated to drive the KT members out of the towns and agricultural communities of Michoacan. Federal security forces, military and police, originally were present but not openly involved. Most observers agreed, though, that the federales had provided covert support and some training to the armed civilians from the state’s rural areas.

The election of Enrique Peña Nieto and the return to power of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was expected to bring back the old system of working out a cooperative relationship with the cartels that had marked the “peaceful” period for many years before the advent of Vicente Fox and the PAN (National Action Party) in 2000 and the aggressive anti-cartel actions of Felipe Calderón in 2006. It hasn’t happened quite that way. An initial period of relative inaction by the new PRI government has been replaced in recent months by an openly active program by the Peña Nieto administration. The Michoacán vigilante growth and effectiveness has led to accords on mutual cooperation between and among the armed civilian groups and local police executives.

In the past few weeks there has been a rebirth of quasi-military units made up of heavily armed self-defense forces (aka vigilantes) working directly with government advisers. The new units will be a reconstitution of what was known in earlier times as the Rural Defense Corps, a mechanism harking back to the earlier generations under PRI-dominated governments. The aim is said to be to formalize and discipline the civilian vigilante movement against the drug cartels’ well-organized criminal gangs.

The danger exists, however, that after effectively organizing and training the civilian cadre — now estimated to have thousands of volunteers — the government eventually will have to demobilize them, create productive new jobs, and return these armed civilians to peaceful employment. In similar situations in Latin America the new paramilitary groups became problems in themselves. The central government in Mexico City says it is well aware of this potential issue, but believes there is an adequate history of civilian rural defense in Mexico to allow for the new structure to deal with immediate needs, especially in the pro-government environment in the state of Michoacán. More importantly they ask, “What is the alternative?” 

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.