Mexico: Self-defense defies the president in fight against cartels

Surrounded by armed men, "Comandante Toro" says that civilians who have taken rifles to defend themselves against criminals in the western Mexican state of Michoacán will not depose them.

A security guard in the back of a van while patrolling the municipality of Coahuayana, in Michoacán, Mexico.

A security guard in the back of a van while patrolling the municipality of Coahuayana, in Michoacán, Mexico. August 22, 2019. REUTERS / Alan Ortega.

Reuters | Lizbeth Diaz

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Leer en español: Mexico: Autodefensas desafían al presidente en lucha contra cárteles

On the contrary, he said, they revive their operations in the face of the increasing violence unleashed by criminal organizations that seek to control the market for synthetic and other illicit drugs.

Germán Ramírez, "Toro", is a former teacher of a rural school in the community of Santa María Ostula, an impoverished community with a good part of its indigenous population, located in the municipality of Aquila, in western Michoacán.

After alleged hitmen kidnapped and shot his father six years ago, Ramírez had to focus on a new vocation as a self-defense leader to help his community fight against criminal groups fighting for control of the synthetic drug market, others narcotics, clandestine logging, mineral trafficking, and other illegal activities.

"Every time they kill someone there are more angry families," said Ramirez, 31. "This is how people take up arms and our forces increase. This is what is happening."

The resurgence of dozens of the so-called self-defense groups, which took notoriety a few years ago, has exposed deficiencies in the security strategy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to reduce record levels of violence.

According to official data, from January to June in Mexico, 17,614 homicides were committed, a figure that aims to exceed the record number of violent deaths last year. Of these crimes, 809 occurred in Michoacán and 13% more cases registered in that state in the same period of 2018.

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Ramírez says that at this time, just to take care of roads in Santa María Ostula and access to nearby communities, he has about 200 armed civilians. The commander, a position he obtained for uses and customs, says that unlike the criminals against whom they fight, they do not kill and prefer to expel them from the town.

In this area, he says, local police rarely enter as in other rural areas of Michoacán. Federal authorities did not immediately respond to requests for information from Reuters on the issue.

López Obrador assumed the presidency in December with the promise of giving amnesty to members of criminal groups willing to leave the ranks as a new unclear strategy, to reduce levels of violence without resorting to strong confrontations.

Since then, his government has sent mixed messages on how he will deal with self-defense groups, which are not always distinguished from criminal organizations.

"The government is only worried about disarming us," said Héctor Zepeda, aka "Comandante Teto", leader of another self-defense group in the municipality of Coahuayana, about 50 kilometers from Aquila.

In August, López Obrador said that the self-defense groups operated outside the law and should be disarmed. However, other government officials have suggested that they are negotiating with them. The Secretary of the Interior, Olga Sánchez, told reporters a few weeks ago that the government was dialoguing with several of these groups, without giving details.

Until the end of last month, none of the commanders interviewed by Reuters had been visited by any authority with that intention.

The Mexican president has insisted that with his newly created National Guard - a militarized police force - and that it could reach up to 150,000 troops - he will be able to restore order in the country.

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Battle for control

Security experts interviewed by Reuters agreed that with the emergence of armed civilian forces violence was contained in crime-stricken areas such as Michoacán, but over the years some of these allied themselves with criminals who provided them with weapons and protection.

"This is a big problem that is now exploding to the current government, (...) they were allowed to arm for many years to carry out activities that touched the Mexican State," said Erubiel Tirado, coordinator of the National Security program, Democracy and Human Rights of the Universidad Iberoamericana.

"Toro" acknowledged that some members of self-defense groups deviated from their path, both by joining the ranks of crime and accepting a position in the government.

Armed civilian organizations began to emerge after former President Felipe Calderón launched a military offensive against cartels in Michoacán, his home state, shortly after taking office in December 2006.

Far from achieving the containment of violence with this strategy, it caused the fragmentation of criminal groups and their incursion into other crimes.

But it was not until Calderón's successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, assumed power in 2012 that the self-defense groups began fighting major battles against drug cartels, making national headlines.

By early 2014, the self-defense groups had taken hold in Michoacán and had succeeded in keeping criminal groups like Los Caballeros Templar at bay, which at that time was the main threat to the communities, something that became uncomfortable for the government.

Together with the Sinaloa Cartel of the captured bonnet Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the Knights Templar dominated the main traffic routes on the Pacific coast.

However, the displacement of the Templars opened the door to incursions by rival group Jalisco Cartel Nueva Generación (CJNG), from neighboring Jalisco state, considered one of the most dangerous transnational groups in the world by the United States government.

The CJNG offensives to secure illegally extracted fentanyl and mineral traffic routes have spread on the sparsely populated coast of Michoacán, located between major ports such as Lázaro Cárdenas, in the southern state, and Manzanillo, in neighboring Colima state.

"Unfortunately through the port (of Manzanillo) everything comes in, it's not a secret, even what I wouldn't have to enter," said Griselda Martínez, mayor of Manzanillo who was the target of an attack last month by armed subjects traveling on motorcycle.

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Attempts to extort money from companies in the area rich in iron ore that supplies steelmakers such as Ternium have added to the headaches for communities trapped in the middle like Santa Maria Ostula.

"Now we don't just have to deal with criminal gangs trying to control ports like Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas," Ramírez said, "now they come after us."

Last week, social networks widely disseminated images of self-defense groups struggling to contain CJNG forces attempting to enter Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. Photos and videos showed bloody corpses of men dressed as soldiers inside vans. In the videos, you could hear shots.

"If we hand over our weapons, they will kill us," Ramirez said from his den on a green hill bathed by the breeze of the Pacific Ocean where a few meters away you can see dozens of armed men and women with children playing.

The self-defense groups say that the president's promises are falling.

Zepeda, the "Commander Teto," whose brother was killed six years ago, said he has no hope that the government will bring peace to Mexico. He even said that some residents of Colima who have lost relatives in the middle of the criminal wave have turned to him for help.

"They know the government doesn't care," said Zepeda. "Then they want to know how to take up arms."

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