Community self-defense groups confront Mexico’s drug cartels

MEXICO CITY – An armed insurgency is emerging across Mexico. However, rather than being a movement to overthrow a government, it aims to defend communities and combat drug cartels that have pillaged and terrorized much of Mexico.

Neo-conservative reforms, promoted by the dominant parties PRI and PAN since the 1980s, such as free trade and privatization, undermined Mexico’s economy and agriculture, lowered wages and created mass unemployment. And they helped foster the growth of drug cartels.

The drug cartels, which sell an estimated $18 billion-$32 billion in illegal drugs to the U.S. each year, provide one of Mexico’s top exports. In recent years, they have diversified and enhanced their economic might, investing in industry, mining and agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of men and women are forced to work for the cartels to survive.

Worse, Mexican TV networks and street markets are flooded with Mexican, U.S. and Colombian soap operas glorifying the drug cartels.

Over the past several years, self-defense forces and policia communitaria (community police) have emerged in the Mexican states of Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos and Veracruz.  These self-defense forces, consisting of thousands of armed men and women, differ from  past and current guerilla groups in Mexico and Latin America because their intended goal is not revolutionary change but protecting local communities from the numerous drug cartels which prey on the poor and powerless.

Nor are self-defense forces equivalent to paramilitary forces such as those found in Colombia, as some have critics have suggested. In Colombia, big cattle ranchers, the army, and businessmen formed the paramilitaries in the 1960s to combat guerillas and enhance their economic interests, but self-defense forces in Mexico are a grassroots movement of men and women committed to defending their communities.

Given that most police in Mexico are corrupt, inept, or work for the drug cartels, many who support the self-defense forces and policia communitaria here believe the only way to protect their communities from the drug cartels is for people to arm themselves.

The latest hotspot is Michoacan, a sun-drenched state of 4.5 million people, where until recently a drug cartel called the Templarios Cabelleros (Knights Templars) ran the state like its own private fiefdom. It forced farmers, agricultural laborers and businesses at gunpoint to pay protection money, and taxed agricultural products. It also began expropriating farm lands used to grow avocados and lemons, either stealing farmers’ lands or buying the land at low prices.  Those who refused to leave or sell were killed along with their families.

Like other cartels, the Templarios kidnapped, raped or enslaved young women, forcing them to work in the sex trade or to serve cartel leaders.

Michoacan’s corrupt ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government and police force, infiltrated by the cartels, did nothing to protect the population. Fed up with living in fear, people began forming self-defense forces in early 2013, organizing patrols and erecting roadblocks to fend off narcos.

In January, a convoy of heavily armed men began rolling through the countryside liberating towns and villages from the Templarios. Fierce fighting ensued between the self-defense forces and Templarios in some towns. The Templarios unsuccessfully tried to halt the armed convoy with burning buses and sniper fire. The self-defense forces, which began their fight with old hunting rifles, replenished their weaponry with modern automatic weapons, grenade launchers and machine guns abandoned by fleeing Templarios.

However, the response of the country’s right-wing PRI government of Enrique Pena Nieto exposed a darker truth about Mexican politics. Instead of helping the self-defense forces, the national government sent federal police and soldiers to disarm them, leaving them defenseless against the Templarios. A source in the Mexican military intelligence services told the People’s World in an interview that the federal government sent in forces to disarm the self-defense forces because the Templarios helped finance Pena Nieto’s 2012 election campaign.

The source said that neither the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) or PRI have any serious interest in eliminating the drug cartels because the cartels are now an important source of campaign funds for candidates. The federal government has tied the hands of the armed forces in their battle against the cartels. “The war against the cartels is now more of a farce,” lamented the source.

Self-defense forces, claiming to have 25,000 armed men and able to mobilize another 140,000, threatened to resist federal efforts to disarm them. “If they disarm the self-defense forces, they [the Templarios] will kill us,” Commandante Patacha told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. “The self-defense forces are necessary until we finish the fight that we have undertaken [along] with the Federales and soldiers.”  Patacha’s self-defense group also stated its suspicions that the government, in wanting to disarm the self-defense forces, “is looking to to protect the Templarios.”

After the government’s failed attempt to disarm self-defense forces in one small town – leading to the death of three protesters when soldiers fired on a crowd that tried to prevent the military from disarming the armed group – the Pena government switched to a strategy of trying to co-opt self-defense forces. On Jan. 27, it legalized the self-defense forces and began stressing the goal of recruiting members for a new state police force that would restore law and order. However, already the federal government and state PRI Governor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa are trying to discredit the self-defense forces by alleging that they are being armed by the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion.

Self-defense forces continue to liberate towns and villages in Michoacan and vow to free the state from the Templarios. “The war is not with the government, it is with the Caballeros Templarios or whichever cartel that wants to come and take us prisoners or enslave us,” Michoacan’s General Council of Self Defense said. One of the first acts they undertook was to return stolen farm lands to their previous owners.

In the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, policia communitaria are elected by popular assemblies in indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Unlike many in the self-defense forces, policia communitaria do not cover their faces, wearing uniforms that visibly identify them. They have also created their own parallel justice system that punishes and re-educates offenders.   Human rights organizations in Guerrero complain that the military and federal and state police are harassing the policia communitaria instead of helping them.

Self-defense forces and policia communitaria throughout the country will likely continue to grow as Mexico fragments and descends into lawlessness and chaos.

Photo: Hundreds of Mexican journalists silently march in downtown Mexico City in 2010 to demand justice and protection for journalists against drug cartel violence. Knight Foundation CC 2.0