Mexico's new drug cartel battle: Self-defense leagues


Since late last year, vigilante groups in the state of Michoacan have moved deeper into territory controlled by the Knights Templar cartel and they now are converging on Apatzingan. Picture taken January 14, 2014

Article Highlights

  • Turf wars in #Mexico could create problems for the U.S.

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  • Michoacan has been the epicenter for violence and turf wars for many years.

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  • In Mexico, so-called guardias comunitarias have emerged to fill the vacuum created by an insufficient federal response.

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Two weeks ago, the Mexican government dispatched federal security forces to the state of Michoacan, which has been besieged by a turf war among extraordinarily violent drug-trafficking organizations.

Raging battles among well-armed gangs, the advent of vigilante self-defense groups, and the inability of local authorities to quell the violence have challenged the security strategy of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who came to office 13 months ago de-emphasizing the threat posed by narcotrafficking.

Michoacan has been the epicenter for violence and turf wars for many years. It was in that state seven years ago where former President Felipe Calderón launched the first operations in his intense effort to fight criminal organizations. Corrupt local authorities never supported these federal efforts, and narcotrafficking has continued to threaten state institutions and the citizen security.

For example, Leonel Godoy, the previous governor, faced several accusations of corruption. His brother and former Congressman Julio Cesar Godoy remains a fugitive after it was revealed that he had links with the Familia Michoacana drug gang. During Leonel Godoy’s tenure, violence in Michoacan spiked, and corruption became the rule rather than the exception.

Current Gov. Fausto Vallejo has been battling liver disease since the beginning of his administration, and his neglect for almost a year created a power vacuum that exacerbated the situation.

A defense vacuum

Michoacan is plagued by a number of criminal organizations — the Knights Templar, Familia Michoacana and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — that use violence to claim territory for their illicit operations. Their clashes have escalated in the past year, as the nation’s new president focused on an ambitious economic reform agenda.

So-called guardias comunitarias — self-defense militias —have emerged to fill the vacuum created by an insufficient federal response.

Some say that authorities in Mexico City have tolerated these vigilantes because they challenged the spread of narco-networks. Unfortunately, many of these vigilante forces appear to have been infiltrated by armed guerrillas and other drug-trafficking organizations, thus expanding the criminal violence and undermining the governability of an already fragile state.

The crisis has boiled over in recent weeks as a vigilante militia declared its intention to wrest control of the town of Apatzingan from the Knights Templar. After armed vigilantes occupied surrounding towns, Peña Nieto’s powerful interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, convened the national-security Cabinet in Michoacan’s state capital and declared that the federal authorities were assuming control over security matters.

He demanded that the self-defense groups immediately surrender their arms and cooperate with authorities to confront the traffickers, promising to be “severe and inflexible” in dealing with illegality.

Escalating violence

It is impossible for federal authorities to downplay the escalating violence in Michoacan, which has joined Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Guerrero, Jalisco and the state of Mexico among the most violent in the country. For years, state authorities have been either unable or unwilling to tackle the levels of criminality and brutality that have menaced its population.

Although more robust federal intervention in Michoacan might have prevented the current crisis, Peña Nieto’s administration apparently failed to act earlier for fear of exposing the ineffectiveness of its current strategy.

From the outset of his term in 2006, Calderón saw transnational organized crime as a serious national-security threat, and he adopted an unprecedented, proactive campaign to impose the rule of law. Peña Nieto took power promising to implement a new anti-drug strategy that would focus on mitigating violence rather than confronting criminal organizations and capturing kingpins.

Indeed, his ambiguous assurances won praise from some policy mavens in Washington who never approved of Calderón’s law-and-order strategy.

A wake-up call

Although the response to the crisis in Michoacan does not necessarily signal a change in Peña Nieto’s strategy, the failure to prevent what some observers have called a mini-civil war should be a wake-up call to his team that the narco-threat will only intensify if it is not confronted.

No one can fault Mexico’s president for emphasizing a positive agenda of reforms that he hopes will ensure his country’s prosperity for decades to come. However, today, the people of Michoacan and the rest of Mexico expect their government to keep them safe.

Mayhem in Mexico would have terrible costs for the United States. U.S. officials must do much more to encourage and assist Peña Nieto to take concrete, proactive steps to ensure that well-financed and well-armed gangs are not allowed to operate with impunity. We have a shared, inescapable responsibility to meet this challenge.

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About the Author


Roger F.
  • Roger F. Noriega is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean) and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. He coordinates AEI's program on Latin America and writes for the Institute's Latin American Outlook series.

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