Federal Troops Deployed in Michoacán

On the morning of Tuesday 14th January, federal troops were deployed in the Mexican province of Michoacán in order to diffuse the growing violence between vigilante self-defence groups and the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) drug cartel. Conflict had been simmering since February last year when a group of ranchers set up the paramilitary self-defence group in order to protect themselves from kidnappings from the cartel. This came to a head on Monday when the group seized control of the town of Nueva Italia and disarmed the local police, who they accuse of being ‘complicit’ with drug trafficking.

The self-defence group insist that they have resorted to taking to arms because of the failure of the state government and police to protect them and their families from the drug cartels. However, many locals have protested against the mobilisation of the vigilantes, and the state government has requested federal intervention to disarm them. This reaction reflects a general distrust of the motives behind the vigilantes’ rebellion, and the concern that military success may come with negative consequences. The Knights Templar themselves have suggested that the vigilantes are allied with other cartels, something that the defence group vigorously deny.
Nevertheless, these suspicions have historical foundations. The object of the vigilantes’ rebellion, the Knights Templar cartel, has origins as a ‘self-defence’ group itself. In the 1990s, vigilante groups formed to defend the community from attacks orchestrated by the ‘Milenio Cartel,’ the dominant drug trafficking group of the era. In order to achieve this, these groups formed an alliance with the ‘Los Zetas’ gang, before splitting to form ‘La Familia Michoacana’ in 2006.

Despite maintaining the pretence that they served to protect the community, they began to tax the production of avocado, lemons and tortillas, before exploiting their authority in more gruesome displays of power and engaging in mass kidnapping, rape, murder, extortion, and disappearances. They justified the torture and murder of enemies by attributing it to ‘divine justice,’ a reflection of the evangelical zeal that the cartel claims to inspire its work. After the federal police killed Nazario Moreno González, the figurehead of La Familia, in 2011, the remaining leaders established an offshoot: the Knights Templar. It is this cartel that currently controls much of Michoacán and south-west Mexico, and has been targeted by the vigilante forces this week.

Whilst at the time of writing the vigilantes have been disarmed in the towns of Múgica and Parácuaro, they maintain control of Antúnez and Nueva Italia, and their spokesperson Beltrán Torres has claimed that they will not disarm until the government detains six leading figures of the Knights Templar Cartel. Torres also announced the death of four civilians, including an 11 year old girl, which he attributed to the arrival of the military. Meanwhile, the Mexican Secretary of State Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong has invited the vigilantes to put down their arms and join the army if they wish to continue their struggle. Whilst it is remains unclear how the conflict will be resolved, the case of Michoacán is a harrowing reminder of the circularity of violence and repression in Mexico, as a result of the ever-present allure of the riches to be gained from drug trafficking.