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Mexico's vigilantes: the aftershocks of ousting a cartel (+video)

The vigilante movement has been hailed in Mexican towns where the Knights Templar cartel wrecked havoc, but it raises questions about extralegal policing.

By , Staff writer

Samuel Gomez wears a wide-brimmed hat and keeps a pistol shoved into his waistband. Surrounded by much younger men brandishing rifles and AK-47s, he's standing guard at a highway entrance to the village of La Ruana, one of the first sites of the vigilante uprisings that have roiled Mexico's Michoacán state this year.

Three years ago, Mr. Gomez fled this town, driven out by increasing threats from the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel, which controls not just villages like La Ruana, but the region's administrative and commercial hub, Apatzingán, with a population of nearly 125,000.

But last March, he returned to this village of lime groves and fruit-packing plants to fight back – joining the informal self-defense movements that have sprung up to counter the overwhelming and destructive power of drug gangs.

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The area was no stranger to cartel activity. Since the 1990s, Mexican traffickers had tightened their grip on shipments of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and later methamphetamine to the United States.

But, in addition to trafficking, the Knights Templar cartel in western Michoacán, like others now in Mexico, turned to kidnapping, large-scale extortion, and ruthless intimidation as well to fatten their coffers.

"They would come to you and say, 'Turn your land over to me,' and if you said no ... they'd say, 'OK, then we'll buy it from your widow,' " Gomez says.

The Knights Templar was so ruthless with the local population that it finally bred an armed uprising, resulting in its own expulsion.

Things have been more peaceful since such vigilante groups stepped up. But to some, the challenge of curbing entrenched cartel violence has only been heightened – as the need now is to rein in these locally organized groups that have taken the law into their own hands.

The tension highlights problems that go beyond Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Country, as this area is known: the long struggle of the central government to provide the kind of legal system that can stamp out corruption and foster prosperity. A weak business community in many areas has also meant few alternative power bases to the cartels.

Many cite the considerable progress that has been made. Over the past decade or so, "the Mexican state has undergone an important democratization process. We now have respectable elections, recognition of individual rights, and a balance of powers," says Jaime Rivera, a political scientist at the University of Michoacán in Morelia, the state capital.

"But what we don't have is a strong and dependable rule of law," he says. "And if that is a problem in Mexico, then in Michoacán it is worse because here the rule of law is much, much weaker still."

'New criminality'

When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, he was determined to change course from his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who launched an aggressive war against Mexico's drug gangs and organized crime. Then-President Calderón sent federal troops into various parts of the country and ordered a military occupation of Ciudad Juárez, then one of the most violent cities in the world.

Calderón's war showed signs of progress. Murders, kidnappings, and other crimes fell, according to government statistics, in particular along the US-Mexican border. But it came at the cost of more than 70,000 lives.

President Peña Nieto took the helm pledging to reduce crime by 50 percent, but more through economic and legal reforms than a head-on battle with cartels.

His plan, however, didn't take into account places like Michoacán.

Drug trafficking and related activities have flourished here for more than four decades, thanks in part to its long and isolated coastline. Its geography makes it a perfect receiving point for South American cocaine, and more recently for chemicals from Asia used in the production of methamphetamine.

Those activities, while illicit and requiring a certain level of government collusion, had little effect on local populations and were long overlooked.

But Mexico is in the middle of "a broad transition in organized crime," says Alejandro Hope, director of security policy at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness in Mexico City.

What used to be a predominance of large, hierarchical organizations focused on international drug trafficking – such as the Sinaloa cartel of top Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, captured Feb. 22 by Mexican marines – has moved toward a proliferation of smaller, locally oriented, and less-hierarchical gangs involved in what Mr. Hope calls "extractive" crimes like kidnapping, extortion, and theft.

Michoacán and the Knights Templar have been at the forefront of this shift.

"If you're extorting everyone from big mining concerns to local taxi drivers, that requires a level of local corruption and police collusion unprecedented even for Michoacán," Hope says.

"This new criminality has far greater implications for people's daily lives than the traditional drug trafficking, and that turned out to be the Achilles' heel of this new mode," Hope says.

Instead of the acquiescence that traditional narcotraffickers enjoyed in exchange for largely leaving people alone, the new gangs bred resistance. "By being so predatory and aggressive towards the local population, they ended up being far more vulnerable to the community rising up against them," Hope says.

Government rescue?

Vigilante groups in Michoacán have run the Knights Templar off stolen property and up into isolated mountains, while in the western part of the state, they took over public security functions and went even further – deciding, for example, who could or couldn't enter a village "liberated" from the gang. This kind of activity was not something federal authorities could ignore for long. Peña Nieto sent in federal security forces in late January – initially to disarm the informal groups.

That mission was quickly aborted, however, after heavily armed federal police confronted angry pro-vigilante farmers in Antunez, a village on the road to Apatzingán.

The federal police were coming in too late, many community members believed. The vigilantes had done what the government had failed to do – pushing out the Knights Templar – and no one wanted an end to the protection the self-defense groups were providing. Rocks were thrown, the federal forces opened fire, and two local residents were killed.

The federal government regrouped, and when the vigilante militias marched into Apatzingán a week later, they arrived backed by the federal police. The new plan was not to disarm the vigilantes, but to sign up as many members as possible to join the local police or the Army-controlled rural defense forces.

By the end of February, Apatzingán remained an occupied city, with hundreds of federal forces standing guard along commercial streets and the boulevards of lime-packing plants and lumberyards.

But no one sees the federal presence as a solution to Michoacán's problem, any more than they see the vigilantes as anything other than a symptom of the state's weak institutions and lawlessness.

"We need justice and legality in this city and this region," says the Rev. Gregorio López Gerónimo, a Roman Catholic priest at Apatzingán's cathedral. An outspoken supporter of the vigilantes, Father López says Mexico has to recognize that Michoacán's self-defense forces resulted from a vacuum of authority left by a state that has been either absent or corrupt.

"It is not up to the self-defense groups to bring to justice the criminals who terrorized our community or to return property to rightful owners. Those are duties of the state," López says. "But until the state is able to do that, people will seek to defend themselves."

The vigilantes continue to man checkpoints leading to Apatzingán and in surrounding villages like La Ruana, and by late February several hundred had taken up the federal government's offer to be registered on local forces.

Peña Nieto also announced a multibillion-dollar investment plan for Michoacán last month, intended to "recover security, establish conditions of social order, and spur economic development." He named a military governor to oversee the plan's implementation and to sidestep the state's elected governor, widely viewed as inept and corrupt.

The 'good guys'?

The Knights Templar have headed for the hills in the face of a growing vigilante movement – and the arrival of the federal police. But they haven't disappeared. Local newspapers continue to chronicle fresh cases of attempted extortion, and residents whisper that threats that before were brazenly carried out in the open have simply shifted to the telephone.

Wary locals say they are relieved the yoke of the Knights Templar has been lifted, but they remember that other federal initiatives in Michoacán over the years have died out.

And now, charges from the public that the vigilantes themselves in Tierra Caliente are using abusive tactics and could be infiltrated by criminal elements are raising concern.

"The self-defense forces started out as the good guys, but nothing guarantees they will remain that," Dr. Rivera says.

Some worry that if they linger much longer outside an institutional context, declining to join with government-sponsored police groups, they could become the vehicle for a new cartel, or perhaps for the upstart criminal gang "New Generation" that federal authorities say is trying to infiltrate Tierra Caliente.

But change in Michoacán's security situation may take more than simply more-robust policing.

"Michoacán still doesn't have the strong local players – the business community, the organized civil society, the human rights groups – that came together in other security crises and delivered solutions," Hope says.

In Ciudad Juárez, for example, a broadly representative "security roundtable" played a central role in turning that city around, he says. And in Monterrey, the capital of the northern industrial state of Nuevo León, a turning point came with intervention by the powerful business community.

A big part of the answer lies in inspiring public confidence, Rivera says. But that takes time to build, and it could take longer than some are willing to wait.

"People need to be able to have confidence in their government and in the forces that are supposed to protect them," says Hipólito Mora, a vigilante movement leader who helped Gomez reclaim his land in La Ruana.

"We didn't have that confidence, and when we couldn't take it anymore, we threw the bad guys out," Mr. Mora says.

But Mora – who has registered to join the new government-administered rural defense force – recognizes the vigilantes aren't Michoacán's final answer.

"Maybe now that we've got the authorities' attention," Mora says, "we can get the government we deserve."

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