Home / Mexico & Central America / [Long read] Armed Militias: For a State Strategy in Michoacan, Mexico

[Long read] Armed Militias: For a State Strategy in Michoacan, Mexico

Mexico & Central America


Ever since the self-defense groups appeared in February 2013, Michoacán finds itself in a profound political reconfiguration process mainly led by armed groups, be they the diverse self-defense groups (autodefensas) themselves, the various cartels that operate in the region or the myriad of Mexican armed forces. The term “reconfiguration” allows us to understand and lay the numerous dynamics at stake: 1. This process is relatively recent and is presently evolving right before our eyes; 2. What can be observed is a phase of “democratization of violence”, as opposed to the near monopoly previously exerted by the Knight Templars (Caballeros Templarios); 3. These ongoing dynamics, even though they are very much political in nature, are treated by the federal government exclusively in terms of violence, focusing solely on armed interlocutors; 4. This process of dialogue is characterized by its high degree of instability, in a context where all parties need each other, but do not trust each other.

How did these dynamics start? First of all, the complexity of the situation in a region where several political, economic and social interests overlap, tangle up and reached a breaking point. What makes Michoacán different is precisely this rupture, a phenomenon that became a reality when the self-defense groups arrived on the scene. Secondly, in what may be a unique context in recent Mexican history, defined not by a power vacuum or the absence of a government, but rather, by a process of atypical state making, since it has been accomplished by non-state actors who do not seek the overthrow of the government. Finally, a region and its inhabitants who had been for many decades part of a system where the only useful political recourse has been violence, sometimes in its cruelest form, used by both the authorities and criminal groups. Both sides contributed to the gradual destruction of an already frayed social fabric.

What we will attempt to accomplish in this analysis is to understand what is happening in Michoacán from an operative point of view, with the intended purpose of answering simple but essential questions regarding the relevant actors: meaning the different levels of government and their armed forces, the autodefensas in all their shapes, as well as the criminal groups who have a presence and conduct their activities in the area. As of today, the federal strategy may be considered as a failure: security in the region, or at least in the area where the federal forces are deployed, has not improved; criminal financial and administrative structures, despite the apprehension or execution of several heads of the Templars cartel, are still in place or reconfiguring; the social and political conditions that provoked the crisis have not been dealt with; and the human, or psycho-social motivations that motivated an armed movement are not encompassed by the government initiative.

The operational questions can be formulated in the following ways: these actors, what do they do? How do they do it? Their actions, what do they cause? What do they mean in the short, mid, and long term? Trying to answer these will allow us to produce a clearer analysis in terms of each actor’s strategy, avoiding normative frameworks that limit understanding and bog down the assessment.

This work is based on field investigation, carried out during different periods between summer 2013 and march 2014, as well as academic readings, newspapers and data collected from local and national archives. Our aim is to provide a qualitative approach to the ongoing crisis. For security matters, the names, dates and locations of the different interviews and interviewees will not be mentioned.

Part 1: The Criminal System of Michoacán, One of a Kind

The Middle East historian Henry Laurens famously said in 1982: “If you understood anything about Lebanon, you’ve been misinformed.” This phrase can be applied to modern day Michoacán, reminding the complexity of a region that does not fit into any defined analytical category. There is no one single Michoacán, there are many, intertwined and undergoing a profound political reorganization, a phase that does not leave much room for homogenous processes. The latter applies to the actors involved in the region’s crisis: the self-defense groups are no longer united (assuming they ever were); the ruling criminal group has already transformed; and, finally, the government, or rather the governments, going by all their branches and levels, are hardly a unified body.

The Need for Local Scale Analysis

This understanding is the main thread of this analysis, which intends to identify the dynamics at play within the events taking place in Michoacán, without forgetting the fact that the most important level of observation is to be found at the local scale, the latter being examined through the connections it maintains with the regional and national levels. Yet, by recognizing how complex Michoacán and the mosaic it creates are, we do not aim at dividing and forming sealed categories of analysis: our objective is to understand the dynamics at play from one municipality to another, their history, their particularities and the roots of a situation that even though it has blown up in the last fourteen months, has been shaping for decades.

The criminal context in Michoacán, pertaining to activities considered to be illicit and repressed as such, do not have a set start date and are unlikely to have an end date any time soon. However, when one asks the inhabitants, particularly in Tierra Caliente, the Western part of the region, how did things changed, many will say “Los Zetas,” in the beginning of the 2000s. The arrival of this group is not to be considered as the origin of the drug trade in the area, but rather the moment in which society forcibly finds itself directly impacted by organized crime, particularly by the type of violence conducted by the Zetas.

From another point of view, the arrival of the Zetas represented Michoacán’s integration into the greater violent panorama of the drug trade in Mexico. This “invasion,” or “foreign intervention” was suffered as such by the society at large, and by local drug trade organizations in particular. The latter began to use a public form of territorial rhetoric by presenting themselves as a Michoacán solution to a Michoacán problem, in opposition to these “foreign” groups, and the federal government. These overt public positions of the criminal groups in Michoacán, embodied by La Familia Michoacana first, and later by the Caballeros Templarios, demonstrate this unique brand of criminal behavior. Although there exists throughout several regions in Mexico examples of contemporary mafioso behavior by drug traffickers, that is to say control of territory, the selling of “protection”1, and social acts “in favor” of the local population, no other organization exhibited such levels of boldness as the Michoacán ones. By boldness we are referring to their capacity to publicly express a clear political message about what their organization’s mission is, just like how La Familia did, only to be further strengthened and reiterated by the Templarios later in 2009.

The Institutionalization of Criminal Organizations

Michoacán’s messianic criminal discourse is first channeled by propaganda: the organizations present themselves as the legitimate defenders of Michoacán, a necessary evil to prevent further harm in the shape of “foreigners”. Their pitch is broadcast by the media, but mainly takes root in day-to-day life through the various points in which criminal groups come in contact with political power and social life. The Familia Michoacana presented itself as a public social structure, which would not only take control of “security” in the state but also of social development, functioning then as guarantors for a better quality of life and as defenders of the meek. The group, at the local level or even at the very top of their hierarchy, acted as managers, middle men, judges, governors, arbiters, and as public peace officers, taking care of all sorts of disputes, such as relationship and property issues. In these examples, the organization would find a “resolution” as well as doll out the punishment.

The Templarios, who broke off from the Familia, took over these practices with a higher degree of sophistication. What matters here, the Templarios symbolism notwithstanding, are the consequences of such activities. The mistake would be to ignore that aside from being a powerful and violent cartel, this organization effectively acted as a local and regional government and, under its own criteria, in a very efficient manner. Speaking in terms of a power vacuum and absence of State, is to refer to an inadequate analytical and normative framework in order to understand a region that does not fit in a Realist analysis. In the past years, the power of the Templarios grew to the point where they had near monopoly over violence as well as territorial control of Michoacan, in addition to control over agricultural and mineral production. The latter was not solely based on extortion: the organization managed to design and implement an industrial and commercial strategy, something no one, including the federal government, had been capable of.

Simultaneously, there are observable and fundamental symbolic processes that can help us understand the current situation. To recognize that the Templarios have been perceived as legitimate in the region, – a feeling that varied depending on time, place and people — is not an apologetic assertion. This legitimacy came from concrete facts and actions carried out by the cartel (conflict resolution; security in daily life; the setting of rules; gift distributions to the community; the use of religion; economic opportunities, both legal and illegal; economic trickle down effect in the region) as well as in symbolic gestures. This includes the case of individuals who feel socially integrated as a consequence of their belonging to the cartel: carrying a weapon, with all the violent power it confers and the strength that comes with being a part of a group.

The Rise of the Self-Defense groups and the “Democratization of Violence”

Since February 2013, a process of political reconfiguration and “democratization of violence” has followed the Templarios’ monopoly of violence. By democratization we mean that violence, instead of being in the hands of one entity, which ideally is public but in that case property of a criminal group, becomes dispersed and used by various groups against each other and otherwise. In this particular instance we can identify three different sets, assuming that they are homogenous: the self-defense groups; the Templarios; and state forces, being federal or not. This democratization provokes the confrontation of a multitude of interests, grouped under the understanding that violence, and therefore weapons, are the most important resource for control of territory, social promotion, conquest (or rather re-conquest) of political power and control of illegal trade (production and transportation of drugs, as well as illegal extraction and export of minerals). It is worth noting that these objectives are in no way mutually exclusive, quite the opposite.

In Michoacán, and this is not a recent phenomenon but rather a product of decades-long sociopolitical dynamics in action, the political recourse of worth is violence. Yet, it is essential to understand the role played by violence within the region’s political system. When the leaders of the self-defense groups declare that “they had not other choice but to take up arms,” they are merely expressing what has been standard operating procedure in the region for decades: if you do not engage in the physical or symbolic use of violence, you will not control Michoacán. This dogma is shared just as much by the government, federal and state, by way of military campaigns, as well as by groups in power, be they local caciques or drug traffickers. Organization and mobilization of violence, rarely held in legitimate hands, is the essential resource for the obtainment and conservation of power in Michoacán.

Part 2: The Federal Government and the Use of the Self-Defense Groups

One of the main mistakes of the Federal government in Michoacán has been to superficially assess the crisis in terms of a mere armed conflict opposing two or more sides, and to believe therefore that it would be sufficient to pick and support one in order to defeat the other. This process evolved through different steps: first, from February to July 2013, with the government monitoring the situation, scarcely communicating about it, while the armed forces already present in the region, and made stronger by the May 2013 operation, oscillated between tolerance, control and repression; second, from August 2013 to January 2014, when rapid progress by the autodefensas on the ground, as well as their growing media exposure, convinced the authorities to actively and militarily support the movement, therefore weakening and almost annihilating the Templarios; third, from January 2014 until now, when the Federal government decided to publicly take sides, through the appointment of a Special Commissioner for Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo, and the progressive cooptation and dismantling of the self-defense groups. During the entire process, the executive power intended to consolidate its power and control over the region by feeding oppositions: autodefensas against federal forces, autodefensas against Knights Templars, and, finally, coopted autodefensas (rural police) against “rebel self-defense groups”, which is the phase we are currently observing.

For many months, public debate about the self-defense groups focused on their nature: who are they? Where do they come from? Are they similar to the Colombian paramilitaries? How can they be controlled? Nevertheless, as these questions were filling Mexican and international news columns, feeding what Carlos Monsivais dubbed “the interpretive feast”2, the federal government chose not to follow the same path by taking a more pragmatic posture. So much so, that when traveling through Tierra Caliente, it is not uncommon to hear people say that “the self-defense groups are a product of the federal government.” Although it might seem difficult to share this point of view, the people we have talked to introduced an aspect that has rarely been analyzed: the instrumentalization and co-option of the armed movement by the federal government, as well as the benefits it has received through the self-defense groups, an armed body which has a deep knowledge and understanding of its own society and the way local people operate, are evident. Even more importantly, its extensive knowledge of Michoacán’s back roads, country, trenches, sierras and caves, none of which federal forces had been able to cover nor had the desire to during their previous security operations in Michoacán, which were started by President Felipe Calderon and resumed by President Enrique Peña Nieto. In such situation, the autodefensas became a crucial ally, likely to disappear in case of break-up among the actors, along with the strategic coverage of the terrain.

The Michoacán Mosaic and the Search for Legitimacy

It is in this way that the federal government’s first victory, through the self-defense groups, is a territorial victory. The physical presence, although exclusively represented by the armed forces, that the federal government is currently projecting is essentially unheard of in recent memory. Because of this, there has been a circumstantial rapprochement, which has come as a surprise for anyone who moves through the region, among the civilian population, armed or otherwise, and the Federal Police, who are known locally as the “the blues” (los azules). An inhabitant of Buenavista would later comment that the federales “had always been here, but no one helped them, no one spoke to them.” Without going into detail as to why such a détente took place, it is important to note just how crucial this progress is for the federal government in terms of “symbolic” presence, the gathering of information and intelligence, proximity to the people, their image and above all in trust. Trust is perhaps the most severely absent ingredient when it comes to going into municipalities and doing what is necessary to get in. There is however one more important element: The political side of things. Right now the state government and the federal government are the same political party and have the same interest in finding a solution to the situation in Michoacán. In years past, it was not like this. It used to be the two most adversarial political parties (PAN and PRD) doing everything they could to never coordinate or work together.

Besides their heterogeneity, one of the only constant within the self-defense movement was the call made by the self-defense groups for the reestablishment of the rule of law and “regular” conditions of life in Michoacán. There was never a will to overthrow the government, in fact the opposite happened. In a call to the federal government, bypassing the lower municipal and state levels in the process, the self-defense leaders had asked for a strong and urgent coordinated intervention. For the actors on the field, this period came to be considered as the most dangerous and therefore it is remembered as the bravest moment. These months can be identified as laying the groundwork for the self-defense groups which received very little attention from the national and international media, during which they “slept very little, patrolled quite a lot and suffered even more,” according to the very participants. These foundational months gave a great deal of confidence to the members of the self-defense groups, as they were convinced that if they made it through that period when they stood alone completely exposed to the reprisals of the Templarios, what came after could not in any way be any worse. In more concrete terms, what this period demonstrates is that even though there had been coordination, as well as  “dialogue” and even some agreements offered by the federal government, this movement is profoundly autonomous; some critics might even say out of control in addition to being extremely diverse.

Local dynamics jump into view when one travels around the region. The issues in Ostula do not resemble those in Patzcuaro, which in turn have little to do with Arteaga. However, all these municipalities are involved in a shared political process: a deep reconfiguration of the political space and power, as well as the forms of their expression. Although they do not take the same form in every town they take, the self-defense movement has provoked, in all cases, a tangible transformation of the political context, both through armed initiatives but also openly challenging the local governments.

It is essential to reincorporate these processes in the analysis of Michoacán’s parallel political dynamics, precisely to understand its nuances, in opposition to the Federal government who approaches the situation strictly in terms of armed security, through an analytical framework rooted in the binary opposition of friend-or-foe.

These two categories, which serve no good purpose when it comes to understanding Michoacán, are deeply misleading. First, because they vary with time and interests: this is the case for friend-enemy dichotomy. Yesterday’s friend is today’s enemy with no one knowing the true reasoning behind anyone’s intentions or will to solve the problem. Second, because they have no clear legal bases in the region: this the case for the legal-illegal opposition, as illustrated by the arrest and detention of the self-defense leader Hipólito Mora in March 2014, for homicide charges, before his liberation two months later, without any explanation. In these contexts, as explained by Béatrice Hibou, a French sociologist, the law represents nothing more than “a set of references one can contour, pillars around which are invented processes in order to foment new relationships”. Third, because all the involved parties do not share them involved: this is the case for the legitimate/illegitimate opposition: the self-defense groups, especially when they are supported by citizens’ councils, consider themselves as fully legitimate, something which is not always positively observed by the federal government, which obviously considers itself as the one and only legitimate holder of public force.

In such a context, the use of a normative framework becomes solely instrumental and counterproductive, since it is imposed by the outside, especially when the government itself is acting like a weather vane, further dampening any sense of trust, consistency and transparency. Yet, and here lies the interesting paradox, these questions are crucial. In order to reach any improvement in the region, a rapprochement of opinions and perceptions is inevitable. Then, who is the legitimate actor in the region today? Asking people in Michoacán this question, the range in answers include the self-defense groups, citizen councils or, more simply, themselves the people. The government is seldom mentioned in the legitimacy category: they are better known as the actor that “normally should” take care of the people. They are typically mistrusted and are not considered legitimate in the sense of being recognized as a representative body. On the other hand, the self-defense groups had had obtained a very high degree of legitimacy during the course of the movement. It is difficult today to foresee whether they will manage, as a group, this evanescent trust capital.

As an armed movement, the self-defense groups represent the personification of a civilian population who became fed up with the Templarios and the inefficiency of the state. The hopeless feeling of “there is no other choice” is without a doubt the catalyst and groundwork for the movement, as well as major contributing factor for overcoming the movement’s greatest obstacle: fear. This process is a relatively classic one within the framework of social movements, rebellions and revolution: a group of individuals, sometimes even just a single individual, mobilizes a population until it grows into a movement. Undoubtedly, the feelings of total discontent, abandonment and an understanding that they have “nothing left to lose” have been the main ingredients. Traveling around the state, one can also hear locals, as well as members of the self-defense groups themselves declare that they are partly to blame: they blame themselves for having allowed “thugs” to abuse them and not having tried to “do something sooner.”

The expression of this resentment is another important factor of mobilization, just as the consideration of self-defense groups as a vector for opportunities. It is crucial to understand that the movement managed, in certain municipalities, to bring some concrete improvements to daily life: the return to a normal and free life, and the hope for being able to leave behind social configurations that relegated them to reasoning in terms of “better than nothing” and “at least they are the lesser of two evils”, something that could be heard in the past years in reference to the power held by the Templarios. It is absolutely necessary to come into contact with the day-to-day life of the local population which was forced by the organized crime groups or the federal government to respond to the logic used by rival factions, classifying actors into friends or foes and enduring direct and dramatic consequences on their lives. The self-defense groups represent a possibly unprecedented blow to the impunity of criminal groups and government entities, which supported, tolerated or were unable to confront them (or all three attitudes simultaneously). Within the rhetoric of the self-defense groups and the citizen movement in general, there is an expression and materialization of emancipation, becoming in a sense a dramatic condemnation of the Mexican State: if “we want” to change things, we need to do it “ourselves” and do so “by all means necessary, without expecting any support from the government.” In this context of frayed social fabric, the self-defense groups offered a framework for social promotion and integration to the local population.

The Actors’ Fragmentation

Yet, this turns out not to be enough. In addition to being extremely divided, the self-defense groups have not managed to transform their armed success into a clear political process. Perhaps because this was never their intention, or maybe because the federal government did not allow that to happen, but, above all, because the armed groups and their leaders did not necessarily know how to address this type of dynamics and the people’s expectations.

In the municipalities that were liberated from organized crime over a year ago, locals are requesting more than armed protection and patrols and are already complaining about the behavior of some members of the self-defense groups. Even though the liberation of a municipality should theoretically trigger the automatic creation of an autonomous citizen council responsible for dealing with political issues, this process has been brought to a standstill mainly because the self-defense groups are in no way a homogenous group. The autodefensa label does not point to, at least in practice, a single type of organization; it depends on where you are in Michoacán.

At the core of the movement’s fragmentation process, one can identify numerous internal and external dynamics. Internally, it is evident that the motivations that guide the leaders of the self-defense groups vary considerably. As has been pointed out by some analysts and journalists, some self-defense groups are more similar to a criminal group than to a protector of public security. The members’ previous activities have been intensely debated during the last couple of weeks. However, this issue appears to have been assessed from an incorrect perspective. The question is not whether there were former Caballeros Templarios within the ranks of self-defense groups: it is obvious that this was the case.  But this is not directly linked to the armed movement itself but to the social structure of Michoacán before the emergence of self-defense groups. Considering that the region was under Templario control, it seems obvious that many people worked for them, or had some sort of relation with them, or had a family member who had something to do with them. This does not mean that Michoacan’s society has been criminalized, but rather that a criminal group acted like the State for several years, making it impossible for regular people to avoid contact with them. Clearly, there’s a difference between being a hitman, a lookout or simply contacting the Templarios to settle a spousal dispute. Nevertheless, once the self-defense became more established, these distinctions lost their clarity and people started accusing each other. As in every process of liberation, there are those who collaborated with the “old regime” and the question arises on how to deal with them. In Michoacán, the answer was simply to ignore the question and carry on.

As we have mentioned before, many “regretful” individuals joined the self-defense groups. This reveals a system of social advancement based on violence or, at the very least, on carrying weapons. By moving beyond the ongoing debate over the self-defense groups’ weapons (How did they get them? Where do they come from? How are they being paid for? Who is paying for them?) we find the most important question: What is going to happen in such a small area with such an important amount of high caliber weapons? This is the point where we have to go past the culturally reductionist mindset that suggests that there is a “rough Michoacán ” (Michoacán bronco) where “there have always been weapons”. The self-defense groups have mobilized most of the population being able to fight. Perhaps it could have happened differently, but this is not the main criticism. The problem is that the self-defense groups and the State have been unable to respond to these dynamics by offering something other than weapons. Neither one of them has been able or has wanted to develop a political and social planning that would create mechanisms to prevent an armed movement in a region flooded with weapons and with a high potential for conflict. The consequences of the proliferation of weapons will undoubtedly be a long-term issue for Michoacán.

 “People without arms are without voice and without power”

Unfortunately, the federal government’s stance does not appear to try to stop these violent processes. The disarmament proposal doesn’t seem capable of addressing the violence, first of all because there’s very little actual disarmament to speak of: the self-defense groups registered their weapons regardless of caliber and were allowed to go home with them. This goes without even mentioning the fact that some groups have publicly announced they will not hand in their weapons, and those who simply did not do it.

This in turn reveals that the federal government’s stance has followed from the beginning the classic “divide and conquer” tactics, choosing through variable criteria which self-defense groups were allowed to exist, as well as when, how and what they did, and fragmenting some groups by arresting their leaders. The misguided belief that progress could be achieved by following this course of action, which is essentially playing with fire and trying to deteriorate the situation, seems irresponsible, especially coming from a government that is deploying the army in its own territory. The trivialization of violence, weapons and deaths is not only a symbolic issue: it has had, has and will have profound social consequences in Michoacán’s society.

What the current situation reveals is that the federal government has decided to interact solely with armed groups. In the words of a Buenavista local “here, people without weapons are without voice and without power”. This seems to be valid both in the eyes of the federal government and the self-defense groups. It was wrong to believe that territorial control, or rather the illusion thereof, was enough to solve the crisis in Michoacán. The “presence” of the state, or of the self-defense groups, cannot be exclusively military: sending more armed forces, installing road blocks, patrolling towns and even carrying out military operations in the sierras certainly establishes a visible degree of security, and even makes it possible to capture or eliminate cartel members.

However, by focusing exclusively on displays of force, the roots of the problems are not being addressed, particularly because the structures established by the Templarios still stand. The challenge for the government and for Michoacán’s society is to make improvements that could cause the model of the Templariosto collapse. In that line, it is essential to understand that these structures have been growing for decades and that, in the words of a former municipal president from Tierra Caliente, “they never disappear, they transform, change names in less than a month, and everything else stays the same.”

Part 3: The Federal Operation: a Superficial Project

The need to overthrow the model of the Templarios is crucial for two reasons. First, in social terms, to re-establish a solid social fabric to replace the current altered social order that has been permeated by Templario elements. Although the cartel’s discourse has been above all a public relations tool, with no real desire to improve the life of the locals, its system has created massive economic profits for those who could benefit from it, as well as providing a certain moral satisfaction for the people who participated in specific measures, decisions or negotiations. The capacity of the Caballeros Templarios to solve conflicts is an aspect that cannot be overlooked when it comes to dealing with the region. In certain areas and at certain times, being a part of the Templarios was a means for protection, power and improvement in social status. This peculiar social mobility mechanism, linked to being a part of an almighty criminal group, has to be replaced with employment opportunities, public participation and social assistance to prevent the local social recognition and progress model from being linked exclusively to bearing arms. The federal government has to address the local social problems to undermine the criminal groups’ co-option power among the population.

In more operational terms, there seems to be no federal government strategy to dismantle the cartel’s administrative and financial structures to date. The government’s task must be to urgently attend to the matter. The extensive media coverage of the insurance of illegally extracted minerals has been and will be nothing more than mere media blows until the government addresses the actual extraction of these resources. Everyone in the region knows where the illegal mines are. The federal government’s inaction in a highly symbolic subject such as the use of its soil and natural resources demonstrates the superficiality of the government’s strategy and a possible convergence of its interests with those of certain criminal factions. Locating the mines, especially now that the area where they are concentrated in is under government control, should be a quick and easy priority if there was true  political will to undermine the foundations of these criminal organizations in Michoacán.

In the same vein, what is being done about  the properties which were acquired or taken by the Templarios which were later “legalized” through various administrative processes involving public officials, notaries, lawyers, local and state government officials? What are the State Human Rights Commission or the Federal Human Rights Commission doing to investigate what happened before and since the beginning of the movement? Unfortunately, it seems that people in the affected communities do not come forward to the organizations, even when the commissions sent representatives to their municipalities. There is a substantial lack of trust in these institutions which must be dealt with through deliberate policies by the federal government to address the grievances of the victims, the reconstruction of the social fabric and the fight against impunity. If people are afraid to come forward, the authorities must increase their efforts so that the victims report the violations they have suffered, until these processes can be transformed into something more systematic.

A Strategy of Tactics

The federal government’s strategy has to be inclusive, with its sight set on the medium and long term, and to go beyond an approach in terms of a “security dilemma.” Security will not come in the shape of armed patrols, for that this solution cannot be sustained for long.

Undoubtedly, the Caballeros Templarios are currently undergoing a restructuring process and some signs point out to the likeliness of the emergence of another group which will take its place by plugging into the vacant foundations. At that point, the federal government’s strategy will have destroyed a criminal structure only to replace it with another one.

The establishment of a rural police force integrating certain self-defense forces follows the same logic of illusion of control: instead of addressing the fundamental problems, the federal government seems to try to control a side, causing its division from the others, to cast an image of governmental power. This stance can be justified in pragmatic terms, since the government can praise itself for having eliminated the self-defense forces, giving them an official label and declaring the end of the conflict in Michoacán. However, this co-option process does not address any of the crisis’ fundamental problems and exacerbates tensions between factions.

What makes a strategy is the ability to address several issues with a global and long-term vision. What we are observing until now is not a strategy but a tactic, with a more limited focus and aimed at reducing tensions. This is proven by analyzing the Plan Michoacán, which was launched by the President himself on the 4th of February 2014 and focuses exclusively on the Tierra Caliente and the Michoacán coastline, ignoring the eastern regions of the state which also require attention as well as the bordering federal entities of Michoacán, namely Jalisco, Guanajuato, Querétaro, Estado de México and Guerrero, which are affected by similar dynamics. If we continue to borrow military analogies used by both the government and certain self-defense groups, what is happening in Michoacán is an attempt to win a battle but not the war by administering and managing the conflict with the upcoming elections in sight. The undercurrent for all the issues in Michoacán is not being solved, because in order to address one must understand, a slow and time-consuming process that the federal government does not seem willing to undertake. When the people of Michoacán requested help, the State attempted to bring security. By analyzing the situation in terms of armed movements, the government’s bet was to train the self-defense groups and, by that means and the supposed local legitimacy of those groups, win the indirect support of the people.

Understanding implies observing and listening, recognizing the diversity within the groups that can be referred to as “self-defense” groups. This is crucial, but not with goal of individualizing government response, or worse, by pitting groups against each, or mestizo-dominated regions against indigenous ones, in the case of the coastal regions in particular. The tactic employed by the federal government tries to divide the movement into rival factions, or at the very least into factions highly suspicious of each other, can be understood in the short term: divide to increase control. However, it is irresponsible to have authorities playing this “game” by promoting or openly backing certain groups against others based on their firepower. Granting privileges to the self-defense groups who have a greatest firepower will result in tacit support for the next entity that will control illegal activities in Michoacán. By doing so they are giving a clear signal that weapons are still the only political instrument recognized by the federal government.

Local Political Initiatives: Bases for a State Strategy?

In contrast to the armed groups, there are several citizen councils in Michoacán, some older than others and distributed by region, which are undergoing a process of grassroots political construction. These councils cover indigenous communities (such as Ostula), as well as mestiza communities (like Chinicuila, which has been functioning for eleven years, or like Coalcomán, among several others). Certain councils are based in the idea that self-defense groups should fit within the realm of the citizens’ political control, that the municipal economic resources have to be closely followed and that good governance is incompatible with the political parties in Michoacán in their current versions. Others would rather not have a direct relationship with the self-defense groups even when they recognize that, in certain locations, they have created the necessary conditions for the councils to be established or re-established. In Ostula, and in a large part of the Michoacán coastal area, there is a desire to return to social and political community structures within traditional models and customs. Even if they try, in general, not to get incorporated by any political party, these groups do not reject the State. These councils are essentially a call to bring back the rule of law, justice and security as the reigning norms.

The federal government should pay close attention to the existing coordination between citizen councils in different municipalities in order to work in a long-term political framework which intends to re-build the social fabric. In Michoacán, each municipality has its own set of problems. Here lies the key to understanding the situation as well as its most difficult aspect: to design and articulate a strategy at different scales. This articulation is precisely what should be the constant goal. It is absolutely necessary to respond in a way that is at the same time local and regional in scale and considers all variables.

The process of reaching out in order to understand is the most crucial ingredient to overcome the only observable constants in Michoacán: mistrust and complete rejection of all three levels of government as well as political parties, with some sort of exception, in certain aspects, for the federal government. Here lies the paradox in Michoacán’s situation: the actors involved need each other, but don’t trust each other. The proliferation of agreements, treaties and dialogues maintains a façade of cooperation. However, these accords are founded on an unstable structure where every actor attempts to maximize its own short-term profits. Therefore, the restoration of trust is essential. The current situation is complex because the original entry point, the fight against the Caballeros Templarios, no longer  guarantees the unity of the actors. The time has come for the government to act as a State, beyond political party logics. If it was unable to accomplish this shift now, in the words of a ,“the risk is that people begin to say that they were better off under the Templarios.”

The key to overcoming this illusion is for the government to develop a better understanding of the region and its issues, and to make its presence felt through transparent institutions, which nowadays sounds like an impossible task. The question that emerges is the relationship between the federal government and the different levels of state and municipal government in Michoacán. However, the number of municipalities without president or councilmen, as well as the total absence of state government intervention point to a vacuum of public authority in Michoacán. A short review of Michoacán’s history is enough to notice that any attempt to control the region, particularly Tierra Caliente, at a  federal level, is a waste of time. It has never worked, and it does not seem to be working now. The creation of the Commission for Security and Integral Development of the state of Michoacán in January 2014 illustrates the tacit disappearance of the State’s powers. This needs to be an exceptional undertaking as it will not be viable in the mid to long term.

The political alignment between the state and federal executive powers does not seem to have altered the way Michoacán is dealt with. There has been a transition from a confrontation between PAN and PRD to the total submission of local authorities to federal controls, without addressing the issues regarding expelled mayors or refugees in the state of Morelia, and with a governor with fictional prerogatives, reduced to the a posteriori approval of federal initiatives.

The Need for a Non-Partisan Discussion

The solution has to be political, not partisan. In the current situation, with state elections only a few months away, the federal government is not discussing politics but an administration based on an armed security paradigm. However, security is not only based on the control of violence but on solid public institutions, trust within society and towards public powers, on the fight against impunity and corruption and on social development. President Enrique Peña Nieto, who in a speech on April 8th 2014 declared that “security is a subject that should not be politicized” added further confusion to what was previously mentioned. These words spread a negative image of politics. This semantic issue, as frivolous as it may seem, matters.

Today, Michoacán is pure politics: the actions undertaken by all actors have direct effects on the region’s structure and social life. The state has probably never been this caught up in political processes, this alert and organized as a society. It is difficult to understand the federal government’s inability to grasp these processes and not limit its approach to engaging with armed groups.

The unarmed communities are not rejecting politics, or anything political in nature, but rather they reject the way in which politics are organized and expressed at a local level. We can therefore distinguish two distinct dynamics in play that can appear at odds with each other at first glance: one that stems from the local level and the other from the federal one. In the middle of these two is the most powerful actor in the region, the armed actors along with all the uncertainty they carry

This gives us an opportunity to recall a very important aspect of the Michoacán crisis. The region, which represents 2.3% of the national GDP (up to 7.8% when considering the primary economic sector only), is home to far-reaching interests connected to agriculture, mining, tourism, the importance of the port of Lázaro Cardenas for Mexico and the region, as well as the production and trafficking of drugs. It is clear that several groups are looking to take advantage of the ongoing crisis and the shifting landscape that comes with it to get themselves in a more advantageous position. Without buying into conspiracy theories or been naïve, it is important to point out the strategic dimension of what is happening in Michoacán. Not everything is the consequence of spontaneous movements. At the very least, ever since the movement came into the scene, there are far too many interests at work to ignore the possible instrumentalization of the conflict.

The political purge that is taking place in the region under the ever present specter of the Michoacanazo3 is understood within this framework: Who is going to be taken out of the picture, how and why, are criteria that will be left to the discretion of the federal government; which is as far as you can get from a sense of justice and the struggle against impunity. On the contrary, this feeds the arbitrary behavior the authorities show in the way they have executed their belated response, caring more about their own image than about the region’s issues. The need for coherence and accountability from the actors is essential, but even more so from the government. The change in direction as well as partial political purges only foster greater mistrust in an entity that operates on account of pressures, blows and personal and circumstantial interests without any fixed direction. The poorly disguised Michoacanazo which is taking place only illustrates the selection of some public officials to take the fall while others are chosen to stay, or too big to fall. This process symbolizes a tacit and mute recognition of the political and mafiososystem currently in place in Michoacán.

Part 4: Michoacán, the triple illusion of the Federal Government

The Illusion of Legality

The creation of a rural police force on May 10, 2014 is a step that has been presented as a first conclusion to the Michoacán crisis and illustrates the Federal Government’s precipitation to act. Aside from adding an umpteenth armed group to the region, because in practice self-defense groups do not disappear, the latter development raises several questions. The first has to do with the legitimacy and legality of some of the members of the self-defense groups whom in less than a year have gone from being part of Los Caballeros Templarios to obtaining the acknowledgement of the state without undergoing a control process. The second concern has to do with the total lack of training of these forces equipped with weapons of high caliber. Moreover, doubts arise with regards to the Government’s illusion of control, after giving birth to a new coercive organization without having imparted justice or addressed its related challenges. Lastly, it is reasonable to worry about the newly created fracture between the groups of “friends” and “enemies” of the Government, a process that has now been officially ratified.

The process illustrates the conduct of a Federal Government that functions with “patches”. The cooptation of the self-defense groups does not bring a viable solution to the presence of armed groups in the region.  Not having created the minimal conditions of transparence and security in Michoacán, the Federal authorities have endorsed the founding of a new police body in a context of complete distrust: on the one hand between the local actors, -armed or not- and on the other, between the first and the Government. The role of the Federal Government cannot even be understood from a “reason of state” point of view: in the same way that the municipal police –and perhaps also the police of the state- did not respond to a public mandate, it is utopic to believe that in the current context the rural police can represent a legitimate public force. This policy, which sought to generate a media windfall and create the illusion of legality, does not bring anything more than a Government label.

The Illusion of Control

The current bet of the Federal Government seems to be the following: trust the agreements with the leaders of the rural police and ex self-defense groups in order to control its actions bearing in mind the institutional limits previously mentioned. Lacking a clear juridical framework and with no guarantees concerning the operating processes, it is very likely that the members of the rural police will keep obeying those that were their bosses in the self-defense groups, unconnected of any public authority. The same leaders will be able to assume their double character: on the one hand, their role within the rural police recognized by the Mexican state –with the prestige this implies-, and on the other hand, their position as leader of a local armed group.

It does not seem very likely for ex members of self- defense groups to renounce in practice to the interest and convenience of acting with autonomy. The general process will result in a simple governmental artifice of communication towards the public while promoting the illusion of legality to the detriment of legitimacy and reestablishing of a rule of law.

The arbitrary division of the region between friends and enemies as we have already presented keeps being the guiding thread of the Federal Government in Michoacán. The reproaches made to certain individuals is tolerated in others, and vice versa, enhancing the image of a public entity that seeks arrangements following a clientelistic logic and punctual personal interests that by definition are variable. The first result of the Government’s stand is the emergence of new strongmen undoubtedly very related to the criminal landscape of Michoacán, and the cacophony of the political actors that contradict themselves continuously (the Commissioner for Michoacán, the Minister of the Interior, and the Attorney General of the Republic).

More seriously, it has provoked the fracture we observe between armed groups in Michoacán. On the one hand, some self-defense groups enjoy certain popular legitimacy and find themselves integrated in a medium to long-term political process, yet refuse the acknowledgment of the state. Others use the “label” of autodefensas in order to carry out illicit activities and control territories out of any public control. Finally, we find the “hybrid” ones that remain questionable in spite of now calling themselves rural police. This veil of legality feeds the illusion of a public control over the region notwithstanding the new mosaic of armed powers -recognized or not- that act with more of less freedom in Michoacán, and the lingering violence that has reached alarming levels in the last weeks albeit the declarations made by the Minister of Interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, according to whom it is possible to transit through the state “freely and in calmly”4.

The Illusion of Equilibrium

Perhaps today we are facing the most critical moment of the conflict in Michoacán. All the present actors seem prone to bet for chaos: to provoke or to let the situation deteriorate even more in order to later look as the only viable actor.

It’s the classic posture of “me, or chaos” that Los Caballeros Templarios held for many years. Or maybe we should say -more precise for this particular case-, “chaos, and then me”. In spite of having been presented as a project that offers certainty, the rural police are being shaped in a way that can achieve the exact opposite. The demobilization of the self-defense groups is a complex process yet inevitable and should had been carried out through initiatives that seek the participation and the consent of all the present actors in Michoacán. In this sense it would had represented the denouement of a process of clear and binding negotiations. Further, in such a context, the rural police would have been a breakthrough. On the contrary, today, it embodies under the public veil a new fragmentation in the region accentuating uncertainties and rivalries.

What the Federal Government seems to be seeking is not the reestablishment of the law but the quick reinstallation of an equilibrium based on paradigmatic relations of support to certain armed groups in order to come back, little by little, to a monopolistic configuration of violence, legitimate, or not.

The Michoacanos, caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The situation was exacerbated by the tacit disappearance of political powers in Michoacán, and the imposition of an external figure, the Commissioner for Michoacán Alfredo Castillo, who is in charge of order and the pursuit of justice without having any political legitimacy. The Commissioner -who serves in Michoacán because of the sole motive of being a man of confidence of the President of the Republic- could have been a useful and important figure in the framework of a process of clear and inclusive negotiations with the self-defenses, the de facto power in Michoacán, and the few municipal and state authorities that remain standing. However, the Commissioner has been transformed to an opaque and personal link between the chosen interlocutors, this is to say certain leaders of the self-defenses and the Federal Executive power. A firm posture confronted to the political class of Michoacán –who is part of the regional criminal system- should have been the first step in the governmental strategy. On the contrary, the Government proceeded in reaction to pressures of the people, the media or local maneuvers, while lacking persistence and a global vision. The halfway political purge that is being conducted based on proofs coming from the self-defenses, and recorded videos by leaders of Los Caballeros Templarios, discredits the action of the Government.

For its part, the local unarmed population finds itself trapped once again in the middle of murky arrangements and processes while lacking the tools that would allow it to improve its future. We are newly confronted to the classic saying of Tierra Caliente: “everything will always keep being the same”. With the exception of certain communities on the Coast and other municipalities where strong citizen councils have been formed, the dissents seem sturdier every day. The most recent local political initiatives, while still weak, are under threat of being integrated in the logic of the armed confrontation.

Not providing the basic conditions to reestablish the rule of law, the Government provokes the radicalization of the actors while at the same time discredits its current and future actions. The latter with a crucial -and surely irreversible- difference: the frustration and popular distrust proportionate to the positive shock initially provoked by the self-defenses and the governmental promises. By focusing on a dialogue with the armed actors, the Federal Government has relegated to second level fundamental issues such as social problems, without reestablishing security. What the Government currently does is “more of the same” while not understanding the failure of the armed or military solution5. For their part, the autodefensas -a term that has lost its legitimacy while being diluted in the “good”, the “real”, the “fake”, the “corrupt”, “the coopted” and so many other qualifications that are heard and read- have never been successful in articulating its armed action with political and social concrete advances, and thus fall in the violence equation.

It is time for the situation in Michoacán to be taken for what it is: a multi-dimensional armed conflict deeply rooted in the regional social history within a context of complete absence of justice. A conflict is, as always, a realm of contradictory opportunities: some take advantage of it, others see it as a path to political emancipation. The mistake has been to understand the crisis through blinded categories, groups of actors that were postulated as hermetic between them, and not as a society, a whole where all the dynamics are linked among each other. A situation such as this one requires a true process of negotiations, involving every available political actor, as well as every level of government, sitting at a table and committing to juridical based agreements. To do the opposite would be that the municipalities entrench themselves further, close up and violently confront each other under the eye of ineffective federal forces watching how a region slips once again from their grasp. In this scenario the non-armed local political initiatives continue to be models worth following and supporting. Unfortunately, in Michoacán just like in many other places the person in charge is the person who is armed, and the person who should understand and address the situation is still supporting the first.

This report was prepared by Noria for the Mexico-based Think Tank México Evalua. A full original version, in Spanish, was released on June 2nd, 2014, and is available here. We would like to thank México Evalua for the support, as well as our collaborators Tomas Ayuso, Mariano Berkenwald and Olivia Solari Yrigoyen for their help in translating and editing the report.


  1. The term is taken from Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia, in particular “The Sicilian Mafia: the business of private protection”, Harvard University Press, 1993 ↩︎
  2. MONSIVAIS, Carlos, Fuegos de nota roja, Nexos, Agosto 1992. ↩︎
  3. The michoacanazo refers to the series of arrests by Federal forces of 11 mayors (Presidentes municipales), 16 high-ranking state officials and 1 State-attorney in Michoacán, in 2009, for alleged ties with criminal organizations. ↩︎
  4. According to articles of Proceso (http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=372915) and Diario de Coahuila (http://www.eldiariodecoahuila.com.mx/notas/2014/5/21/michoacan-pueden-transitar-tranquilamente-434999.asp) ↩︎
  5. According to an article of La Jornada, the Federal Government, first under Calderon and then with Peña Nieto, has sent to Michoacán the chilling figure of “53.201 elements in different operations, which equates to more than a quarter part of those in the Army and the Mexican Air Force”. (http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/05/13/politica/008n2pol). ↩︎