This article first appeared in Nexos’s Blog de Redacción on 14 January 2014. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).
Michoacán and the Militia: How did we get here?
by Salvador Maldonado
Recent events in Michoacán – heralded by the gradual advance of militia groups into areas where organized crime has operated unchecked – have again drawn the attention of Mexican society and the international community. The reports, images, and videos circulating on social media about the armed conflict reveal dramatic fragments in the fight over security among a people that have suffered an infinite number of atrocities and injustices. The local population trapped in the conflict tells increasingly painful stories about the current situation’s complexity. The taking of Parácuaro, Antúnez and Nueva Italia by the militia, and organized crime’s response, have raised a red flag about the future of Michoacán’s security. What seems to be developing as a result of latest events?
The first element in play concerns how the militia uprising at the beginning of 2013 can be accounted for by institutional changes at the state level: the elections of November 2011 saw the PRD’s removal from two consecutive terms in state government after falling to the PRI, led by Fausto Vallejo. The second element is that the militia uprising took place at the moment when organized crime seems to have acquired its greatest influence over Michoacán society. Drug cultivation and trafficking are not the only things raising people’s ire: kidnappings, extortion and, worse still, property snatching, abuses, expulsions and forced exile. The third element relates to the disruption in agreements and alliances among those – forced or voluntarily – tied to the world of drug trafficking or affected by it. That’s to say, the centralizing thrust of organized crime’s power relations has affected important actors in one way or another, among them agri-business, traders, intermediaries, and farmers.
Questions concerning these three elements have swirled around the rise of the militia in the configuration of the new political order. The militia’s emergence is a type of redoubling of dominant power relations. Specific social groups are unwilling to accept the rules and practices dictated by organized crime. The militia groups’ strength arises from bringing together and capitalizing on the interests and frustrations of sectors of the population using the language of state security. Yet, even in spite of this campaign, the militia has been unable to re-establish security. Just as the militia movement is winning popular support, it should not cry victory over eradicating organized crime. Inside the militia exists an infinity of interests and projects that, sooner or later, will unbridle other sad realities. After all, the militia comes from a “civil society” connected to the politics and economy of a populous region.
These questions arise at a crucial moment in Michoacán’s armed conflict. The militia has managed to make itself a central actor in ousting organized crime. But their growth has forced them to take unclear positions, or, in some cases to make shady deals. The state government’s systematic disqualification of the militia contrasts with the position of the federal government that, until a few days ago, implicitly supported the militia in cleaning society of crime. For their part, the members of the Knights Templar imagine that behind the militia groups they can find other cartels, or perhaps a Colombian-style paramilitary strategy to eradicate them. A delicate and dangerous point seems to emerge here. If the state government systematically denies the militia’s legality through not allowing their greater expansion, the federal government is discretely acting otherwise. In the meantime, the Knights Templar has taken to the mountains to lie in wait.
The principal elements defining the armed conflict’s setting are the militia’s make up, characterized by diverse groups of different strengths, people who have changed gangs, or people who just want to settle scores against organized crime. Add to this the contradictions between the federal and state governments, resistance by organized crime, and probable incursion by other cartels. However, at the root of the latest events in Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente and resulting from the militia taking Nueva Italia in armed confrontation against organized crime, a new situation confronts their future security. The extraordinary meeting between the federal and state governments to announce a new security strategy questioned the militia groups’ so-called legality. Government officials announced they would no longer tolerate taking territory, asking the groups to return home and lay down their arms. Meanwhile the governor promised to deal with things from Apatzingán, so as to create greater ties to the local population. For their part, the militia resists such demands, imagining the danger they could confront if they give up their arms and return to their communities as regular citizens.
One thing seems clear in this setting: the new forms of Michoacán’s armed conflict require dealing with it in a more complex way than just re-establishing “order” or the “law.” Otherwise, should things unravel, there will be a high cost to human life. If the militia puts down its weapons and its members return to civilian life, they will confront a real and merciless offensive on the part of organized crime. In their own communities and families, people know perfectly well who is who, something that will undoubtedly quicken the violence’s depth. To the current areas of conflict this brings other complications: today’s armed violence will daily worsen. If organized crime begins an offensive against “turncoats” or those that supposedly betrayed them, the problem will deepen. The capacity of organized crime to re-establish dominance in a world filled with hidden complicities should not be underestimated. Similarly, if armed forces like the Army and the Federal Police believe they can take total charge of security, pushing the militia out, then even the finest intelligence work will not be able to dismantle organized crime structures. Drug trafficking crystallizes a thick network around the same economic, political, and social organization of a people and their markets, whether local, national, or international. The Army’s presence in the region to combat drug trafficking dates from the ´sixties, and it hasn’t made a meaningful impact, not because the Army is ineffective, but because of the complexity of the economy and those involved. We must not overlook the fact that the violence lived by the people in the region is historic, with distinct dimensions. The capacity for their resistance makes them look for different ways – legal or illegal, formal or informal – to confront their adversaries. Thus, we must not view these populations only as objects of intervention, as if their capacity for organizing did not exist.
What seems most plausible in this sad panorama is a public negotiation between the many legal or semi-legal actors. The objective must be to construct substantive and systematic policy agendas, focused on real problems that can be fashioned according to prevailing obstacles. This situation demands listening and dialogue, without pre-established positions or official behavior invalidating the possibility of agreement.
Professor and researcher Salvador Maldonado Aranda works at El Colegio de Michoacán. His recent research focuses on ungovernable territories. This piece was first published in Spanish on the Blog de Redacción of the news magazine Nexos http://redaccion.nexos.com.mx/?p=6011#sthash.stsSQYsi.VeKHpOMf.dpuf.