Home / Mexico & Central America / Self-defense groups, Cartels and territorial reconfiguration in Michoacan

Self-defense groups, Cartels and territorial reconfiguration in Michoacan

Mexico & Central America

“If your photographs are not good enough, you are not close enough” – Robert Capa

  Since July1, the western Mexican state of Michoacán, is entangled in a crisis which, if analyzed at a macro level, could appear as a relatively classic one: a violent confrontation between a dominant criminal organization, the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) and the armed forces supposed to fight it – federal, state and local police, backed up by the Marines and the Army. A finer analysis, at the local scale, reveals however that this apparent homogeneity hides a mosaic of stakes and struggles in a fragmented and constantly recomposing landscape. In particular, the emergence and multiplication of self-defense groups (autodefensas) have taken the conflict to a new magnitude. These armed militias, fighting against the presence of the Templars have also questioned state action, thus provoking a convergence of interests between the criminal groups and the government, both rather inclined to comfort their presence and territorial control. This article analyses the way the political and security environment of a region declared “ungovernable and ungoverned”2 by the Mexican media is today found to be deeply transformed by the appearance of this new violent political actor.

The self-defense groups, a new central actor

The self-defense groups under scrutiny have appeared in Michoacán in 2012. It is important to distinguish them from community police or vigilante forces (policia comunitaria), a distinction rarely made in the press when analyzing the region. In fact, the term autodefensa, which recalls the Colombian case, designates an armed group formed to protect a community, whose operating modes and funding remain opaque, and whose existence is not legally recognized by the State. At the contrary, the community police exists under Article 2 of the Mexican Constitution, which recognizes “the right to indigenous peoples to self determination and autonomy” in order to “apply their own normative systems for the regulation and the resolution of internal conflicts”3. This legal characterization represents more than a semantic gap as it allows, for example, the government to arrest or disarm self-defense groups by using the juridical argument4. Yet, in the public opinion, the autodefensas enjoy a high popularity, particularly in the regions where they have been able to efficiently protect the inhabitants from the cartel’s incursions, but also have managed to stop the systematic extortions from which the local populations are victims. This racket, initially limited to agricultural production, had progressively extended to commercial activities, independently of their size or the wealth of their owners. This straight opposition to the cartel from the self-defense groups has fostered a direct reaction: the Templars have publicly accused them of working for a rival cartel from the Northern neighbouring state, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), in alliance with a local group, La Familia Michoacana. The self-defense groups thus remain under constant threat from the Templars, as the Los Reyes-massacre of five activists illustrates5. If they all claim to be armed groups formed to defend their municipalities against extortion and violence, the autodefensas are still far from representing a completely homogenous ensemble. From one village to another, their behavior, their motivations, and their scale of organization differ. There are heavily armed groups – the origin and mode of acquisition of the arsenal not being clearly determined – while others are limited to surveillance rounds without having a real coercion capacity. Their behavior at the heart of municipalities is also subject to caution, with some groups being accused of reproducing the coercive methods of the cartel. Nevertheless, the groups as a whole demonstrate an unprecedented erosion of the Templars power, of their social position, of their legitimacy, and, in some regards, a questioning of their existence as a coercive institution in the region, at least in its actual configuration. Respectively, the emergence of a new armed-actor within a network of entrenched clientelistic relationships is already producing contradictory effects. On the one hand, this can provoke an alteration of the existing agreements between the government and the cartel, thus feeding the rivalry. On the other hand, a more delicate situation could appear, as the autodefensas find themselves at the heart of an unprecedentedly large convergence of interest between the State and the Knights Templar6. In fact, neither the government nor the Templars have any interest in the development of self-defense groups: the State’s essence is questioned by the rejection of public authority, while the cartel, in addition to the fall in popular legitimacy, is risking the loss of key territories for the transport of drugs and precursors necessary to their production. In the context of penetration by the CJNG, this element becomes evermore strategic and poses the issue of territorial control in a new environment.

A fragmented territory, a constellation of violent actors

In May, the Federal government’s decision to send 5000 men for a large scale operation did not seem to present a true change, beyond the announcement effect, in a region that has known military campaigns since 1957, then already aiming at fighting drug production and trafficking. The events of July seem to counter this appreciation: the security configuration of Michoacán is now going through transformations of unprecedented impact. Although a direct causal link with the “surge” operated by President Enrique Peña Nieto cannot be established, a deep fragmentation of the region and its actors can be observed. On the one hand, the self-defense groups do not form a coherent ensemble animated by common motivations, and although their number is increasing, they are not yet present on the entire territory. On the other hand, although the racket is extensively present over the region, it is neither perpetuated in all the municipalities, nor is it organized in the same way, and the populations do not respond to it in the same fashion. Moreover, the attitude and the practices of the cartel are not the same in all the areas: they vary depending on the local chiefs of the organization, who enjoy a great autonomy in the daily management of their territories and in the way they intend to carry out justice. This fosters rather varied situations, and at times contradictory ones. Hence, in an emblematic city of the organization, a total ban of racket and a strong remaining public support for the cartel can be observed, while in a second municipality extortions were particularly present until the emergence of a self-defense group, and the public rejection of the cartel is quasi total; and, finally, a third place, where extortion fosters exorbitant prices, inhabitants criticize the members of the cartel in public, but no trace of a self-defense project is yet to be observed7. On their side of the matter, the armed forces, spread out according to the entities cited above, are seen in distrust by local populations, notably because of the links they are accused of maintaining with the cartel. Moreover, the lack of coordination between the different levels of government and authority, from the local to the federal level, is preventing the creation of a real strategy and reinforces internal rivalries as each corporation is defending its own agenda.

The loss of legitimacy of the Knights Templar

The current crisis represents a true setback for the Templario’s “social project”, based on the alleged protection and administration of Michoacán, as well as on the exemplarity of its members. Indeed, the cartel has a central sociopolitical dimension that sets it apart from most of the rest of the Mexican criminal organizations. This relies on its level of institutionalization, social control, production of juridical norms, and its constant quest for popular legitimacy. The latter is based on a discourse of regional belonging: the central government is remote, and incapable of dealing with the needs of a socially and economically marginalized region. The presence of self-defense groups, while interfering with the cartel’s common business, is also directly questioning its legitimacy and posture as an actor claiming to be more efficient than the State. As such, the term “ungoverned” cited above ill applies to Michoacán. First, although it is clear that the government is less present since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, particularly in the social sphere, the continuous army deployments throughout the second half of the 20th century, and again since 2006, always ensured a strong governmental presence in its most coercive aspect. Moreover, the Knights Templar participate to undeniable forms of state-building and institutionalization. The cartel’s capacity to govern, although considerably weakened today, is a reality, particularly in the Western part of the state. These factors are therefore conferring complexity to this region: several types of government are competing there, but also collaborating, in a particularly violent and volatile context. The cartel thus seems to be at a major turning point of its existence, facing on the one hand an strong competition with rival organizations, and on the other hand the erosion of its popular base which remained strong until the last months. The correlation between the two phenomena remains difficult to analyze and it would not be cautious to choose whom from the CJNG or the autodefensas represent the strongest risk for the Templars. The two dynamics are deeply related and feed from one another. The threat of the CJNG may have fostered a certain radicalization of the organization, as it has become even more violent and wary, and has favored coercion over the enforcement of social stability. Finally, the presence of an armed group which is not originally from Michoacán is seen by the Templar leaders as a foreign intervention, thus directly questioning the regional bonds.

Which scenarios for Michoacán?

Thus analyzed, these stakes lead to the identification of several scenarios for the region. In the short term, it seems unlikely that the situation will stabilize, as the antagonisms are strong and deeply entrenched. An increase in violence is to fear in the next months, as each entity is seeking to assert their positions. First, the organization of negotiations between the cartel and the self-defense groups could allow the Templars to improve their image, to tighten the bonds with their social base, and to form a common front against the State. Negotiating would be possible with certain militias holding symbolic regions of the organization, the leaders’ local strongholds, as well as the region’s strategic routes such as the road to the port of Lazaro Cardenas or lemon and avocado production zones. The issue lies with the degree of exasperation of some communities that have already formed self-defense groups, or are on the brink of having ones, and who would hardly relinquish their independence towards the cartel. Subsequently, the rumors of alliances between the autodefensas and the CJNG, whether true or false, are weakening the possibility of discussion. The municipalities that have managed to rid themselves of the Templars are thus in a strong position. Their expansion, their determination and their success can bring them true hope. Hence, it becomes possible to foresee a sustainable presence of the self-defense committees. If they manage to fully coordinate themselves among different municipalities and strengthen their position as a paramount actor they could ensure their survival. In such a configuration, the Knights Templar would be forced to live with the situation, at least in its non-vital zones, while preserving the traffics and the existing agreements with the State. However, it seems unlikely that the cartel would let go of the key cities. In such places, the behavior of the organization is difficult to foresee as the strategic impact of these actors’ emergence is in constant evolution. Another option would be the use of force. There is no doubt that the cartel has the means to repress civilian movements and is ready to use extreme violence to make them disappear. In terms of armament, organization and discipline, the self-defense groups seem to be lagging behind for now. Neither do they hold the exclusivity on terrain knowledge, as they share this strategic asset with the Knights Templar. On the other hand, large-scale operations against “rebel” villages would have major consequences for the cartel. First, it would alienate them even more from the populations, thus eroding the minute public support that they still have, and benefiting the rival cartel whose main argument sits on the condemn of the Templars’ behaviour. Finally, it would probably question the existing agreements with the different levels of government and political and military forces, as these institutions could not tolerate such actions in the context of extreme media focus on the region. The questioning of these agreements would directly imply the reduction of the mobility scope of the members of the organization and of the security of its leaders. This leads to the fourth scenario, where the Templar Knights would disappear. Although unlikely to happen soon, the cartel would still suffer heavy losses if the crisis was to continue for too long. In the case of uncontrolled violence and total legitimacy loss, the State could be inclined to promote another group. The alleged solidity of the organization – that may currently be nuanced as it is difficult to see the internal executions of the cartel as simple coincidences – should however guarantee a certain longevity to the cartel. Nevertheless, the determination of the leaders to hold the region announces another increase in violence if more important penetrations from rival cartels occur, and if the self-defense strengthens. Such a situation would take several months to clear out. For the government, the social and political gap left by the cartel could turn out to be harder to manage, as its own legitimacy and presence are already close to zero in the region. Finally, it is possible that the Knights Templar privilege the strategy of “after me, the flood”. Indeed, certain municipalities managed by autodefensas are already complaining of the criminal practices of the new village chiefs who take over the codes of those they are supposed to fight. If these practices were to spread, the cartel could appear as a savior, effectively demonstrating that they are “the best among worst”8, in particular when facing “foreign” rival groups, the perfect culprits. The heavy damages inflicted by the hurricanes, coupled with the government’s lack of action, could represent a perfect exit for the cartel if it managed to replace the official aid. It seems that such a scenario is already appearing in other severely damaged regions9. Whichever scenario develops, a return to a “calm” situation would not be enough to hide the deep transformations in the region, as the new configuration is likely to last and impact the strategies of all the parties. The increase in number of armed actors, the levels of violence observed in the past weeks, and the State’s incapacity to bring back a minimum level of security seem to tend towards a worsening of the situation.


  1. Note from the editor : This report was initially published in French on September 30th, 2013. This document is a direct translation, published on November 1st. The recent events in Michoacán led us to release this piece, as we believe that our analysis is still valid and helpful in order to understand the challengens in the region. ↩︎
  2. See the media coverage, for example articles from Proceso http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=348519, La Jornada http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2013/08/18/edito ou Excelsior http://www.informador.com.mx/mexico/2013/475222/6/michoacan-el-escenario-de-la-ingobernabilidad.htm ↩︎
  3. « Political Consitution of the United States of Mexico», accessed through http://estadomayor.mx/ ↩︎
  4. Javier Magaña, « Militares detienen a 45 miembros de un grupo de autodefensa en Michoacán », CNN México, August 14, 2013, http://mexico.cnn.com/nacional/2013/08/14/militares-detienen-a-45-miembros-de-un-grupo-de-autodefensa-en-michoacan ↩︎
  5. « Michoacán : matan a cinco comunitarios durante protesta contra Templarios », Proceso, July 22nd, 2013, http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=348083 ↩︎
  6. Falko Ernst, « En territorio Templario », Nexos, September 2013, http://www.nexos.com.mx/?P=leerarticulo&Article=2204330 ↩︎
  7. Interviews carried out in the region during the summer of 2013. ↩︎
  8. Falko Ernst, previously cited, http://www.nexos.com.mx/?P=leerarticulo&Article=2204330 ↩︎
  9. « Cártel del Golfo reparte toneladas de despensas a afectados por ‘Ingrid’ en Tamaulipas », Proceso, September 22, 2013, http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=353468 ↩︎