for President Peña Nieto, who is trying to turn the page on cartel
killings and turf wars associated with his predecessor.
“People here have more confidence in themselves than the government,”
Ms. Ayala says.
But after a confrontation between government soldiers and vigilantes
nearby left at least one person dead, questions are swirling as to how
the government allowed armed civilians to take on the
cartel-orchestrated violence across Mexico that federal forces are
supposed to be fighting — and how President Enrique Peña Nieto is
going to contain the violence associated more with his predecessor,
former President Felipe Calderón.
The rise of these so-called “community police” forces has been largely
welcomed in Nueva Italia, where townspeople say they get little
support from local police or the federal government when it comes to
shutting down organized crime in their back yards; and the
government’s crackdown on crime and drug cartels over the past seven
years has produced few visible results.
The vigilante organizations have gained ground, marching on at least
15 municipalities in Michoacán and also rising up in communities
across neighboring Guerrero state. Mexican newspaper Reforma in March
reported a presence of vigilantes in 13 of Mexico’s 31 states.
But when the federal government sent soldiers to seize weapons from
self-defense groups in Michoacán earlier this week, an initial attempt
near Nueva Italia Monday resulted in a confrontation that left four
civilians dead, according to locals (the government has confirmed one
“There is no doubt: the self-defense groups are illegal and should not
be delegated the responsibility of combating organized crime,”
security analyst Eduardo Guerrero wrote in Reforma.
Trouble for the president?
The persistent expansion of these groups has presented problems for
President Peña Nieto just 13 months into his six-year term. Peña Nieto
has tried to turn the page on a period of cartel killings and turf
wars that is more associated with Mr. Calderón’s tenure, than with his
Peña Nieto has preferred not to talk about security, which his
administration says has already improved in vast swaths of the
country. He has focused instead on Mexico’s economic potential and his
agenda of historic structural reforms achieved in areas such as
energy, education, and telecommunications.
Improving Mexico’s image abroad has been one of Peña Nieto’s top
priories, and analysts say speaking of security problems could
complicate the president’s message.
“Something the Calderón people found out… is that it’s very hard to
control [the security] agenda, because they don’t control the other
side,” says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the
Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, referring to crime and
“The other side is capable of mayhem at any time and at inconvenient
times and at times when they could extract a heavy price in public
opinion against the government for what it’s doing.”
Peña Nieto promised in his campaign to crackdown on crimes such as
kidnapping and extortion, and to start a gendarmerie. The gendarmerie
is not coming together as planned and anti-crime groups say kidnapping
has increased over the past year.
The least worst option
Vigilante justice dates back decades in the forgotten pockets of
Mexico, like the rugged hills hugging the Pacific coastline here.
Peasant defense leagues also protected local residents in past years,
Mr. Estévez says.
Villagers in Cherán, also in Michoacán, drove out their mayor and
local police force in 2011 after illegal loggers, allegedly acting in
cahoots with a cartel, clear-cut local forests.
At least half the municipalities in Guerrero state, south of
Michoacán, have some sort of self-defense groups active, the National
Human Rights Commission reports.
But the presence of vigilante groups presents a delicate situation,
especially in Michoacán. The well-established Knights Templar cartel
has meddled in everything from methamphetamine labs to extortion to
exporting boatloads of illegally mined Michoacán iron ore to China.
The group takes its gang-status a step further than most cartels,
teaching from its own religious text and building shrines to its
supposedly slain founder.
The recent confrontation between government forces and armed civilian
groups here creates a confusing scenario for some: Are these
vigilantes the good guys, or the bad?
“The government response has been contradictory,” says Erubiel Tirado,
a security investigator at the Iberoamerican University.
Senior government officials previously spoke well of the self-defense
groups’ leaders and even met with them.
Talks continue between the government and self-defense group leaders —
who promise not to march on any more towns, but won’t lay down their
weapons until senior Knights Templar kingpins are detained.
The self-defense groups say they are popular with the people, and that
their arrival is applauded. They say they have no ties to rival
criminal gangs — something the Michoacán government and opponents
leading protests against them allege.
“To say [self-defense groups are] purely people that want to protect
themselves is an exaggeration,” says Father Patricio Madrigal, parish
priest in Nueva Italia. Rival cartels certainly have reason to want to
see the Knights Templar weakened, and could be taking advantage of the
situation. But Father Madrigal adds that to his knowledge, any offers
to vigilante groups by Knights Templar rivals have been rejected.
After Monday’s confrontation, the local bishop, Monsignor Miguel
Patiño Velázquez — whose priests have supported the self-defense
groups — issued a blistering pastoral letter saying, “The army and the
government have fallen into discredit because instead of pursuing
criminals, they have attacked the persons that defend them.”
Locals, many fearful to give their names, speak of crimes commonly
carried out here before the arrival of self-defense groups, such as
extortion, kidnapping, and rape.
Farmer Calixto Alvarez says he paid 1 peso per kilo of lemons
[approximately $0.10 for every 2 lbs] he took to the packing plant and
3 pesos per kilo for each kilo of meat he sold to a slaughterhouse
[about $0.25 for every 2 lbs].
“It got to the point that they couldn’t take deliveries anymore,” Mr.
He supports the self-defense groups and, like many, says he wants them
to stay armed and patrolling the region.
“The community is angry,” Father Madrigal says. He fears that if the
government can’t keep citizens safe and simultaneously crack down on
self-defense groups, “We could see a generalized uprising. We could