Over the last few years, inhabitants of the western Mexican state of Michoacán have been forced to evacuate, a difficult task considering the high proportion of livelihoods tied to agriculture, or adapt to an increasingly insecure environment. This insecurity is of course tied to the infiltration of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) which have permeated private and public spheres of everyday life in Michoacán by causing violence and instability, disrupting trade and commerce, and corrupting public officials if not holding office outright. In response to this constant threat of violence, local civilian self defense groups, sometimes referred to as vigilantes, have asserted themselves in the region over the last year, in the name of protecting the public, something the government has not been able to accomplish.3
Recently, however, the Peña Nieto administration has begun to take a more optimistic tone when addressing the public and the media on the chaos and violence in Michoacán. This is in part due to the recent arrest of Uriel Chavez Mendoza, the mayor of the Michoacán town of Apatzingan, and Arnoldo Villa Sanchez, the leader of the Beltrán Leyva DTO, one of the most active in the state.2 The other major DTO active in Michoacán, Los Caballeros Templarios (LCT), has also been significantly diminished as a result of the efforts of self-defense forces given the stamp of approval by the Mexican federal government.1 Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced on April 3rd that these arrests signal that Michoacán has indeed entered a “new moment”, one that justified an agreement between the Mexican government and self-defense groups.1
This agreement, the most significant recent development shaping the security landscape in Michoacán, stipulates that the civilian self-defense groups must either register their firearms and declare their intention to join the newly-formed state rural police and defense forces or demobilize and abandon roadside security checkpoints.1his process, which began April 29th, is to be finalized by May 10th, and until that time the formal agreement states “the self-defense groups and the federal and state governments continue to work in a coordinated manner to locate organized crime targets.”1 Alfredo Castillo, the federal commissioner in Michoacán, stated “Beginning May 11th, any armed person not registered, not uniformed, will be arrested.”3
The goal of registering and conducting ballistic tests on weapons from the self-defense groups is to establish a database of the vigilantes’ arms so that all future weapons use is traceable, and all previous unsolved crimes can use the newly available data.4 Vigilantes will be expected to surrender illegal weapons such as grenades and rocket launchers, and will only be able to carry assault rifles if they elect to join government forces, but otherwise will be able to keep their firearms once registered.4
Unfortunately, there are signs that this “new moment” in Michoacán is not as bright as the portrayal by Mexican state and federal governments. There are already signs that other DTOs are moving in to fill the vacuum being left by LCT and Beltrán Leyva, organizations like Los Zetas, and the Golfo cartel.1
There are also several issues with some of the self-defense groups. Many members of these groups will be hesitant to surrender their weapons, either permanently or for registration and ballistic testing. This is for two legitimate reasons: they either do not trust the newly formed rural government forces to be able to keep Michoacán secure against DTOs, or they are fearful that the government will prosecute past crimes once the new registration and ballistic information becomes available.1 More worrying, there are concerns that some of the self-defense groups are either forming alliances with DTOs, or are “fake” self-defense groups comprised of DTO members trying to infiltrate the rural government forces.1 The magazine Proceso has cited “confidential government documents” that show some of these disturbing connections: the Los Gallegos self-defense group has been linked to the Cartel de Nueva Jalisco Generación, which has substantial ties to the Sinaloa/Pácifico DTO; the LCT leader Servando Gómez Martinez has been connected to the Golfo DTO; finally, the remnants of La Familia Michoacana is linked to the Beltrán Leyva DTO.1
It’s apparent that the self-defense groups, DTOs and complementary organizations, and the newly formed rural government forces have shifting identities, alliances, and goals that are often at cross purposes. Though this fractionalization is complex, there are three fundamental drivers of the process and of the difficulties of dealing with the “War on Drugs generally”. The first is the Mexican government’s kingpin strategy of combating DTOs, where DTO leadership is targeted for prison or killed in order to disrupt the activities of the criminal organization. This strategy, followed by both the Fox and the Calderón administration was initially criticized by the Peña Nieto administration, who eventually adopted the strategy after the struggle to identify effective alternative methods. The arrest of Arnoldo Villa Sanchez, leader of the Beltrán Leyva DTO, is an embodiment of this strategy. Eliminating the leadership of already violent and unstable DTOs can have the effect of making them more violent and unstable, as individuals within the organizations compete for the top spot and the organizations themselves are challenged by outside enterprises for territory and market share.
The second structural root of the difficulty in addressing the drug trafficking problem and the violence caused by it is Mexican’s federal structure and weak governance capacity. The government, though its components often act in harmony, is not homogenous; state and federal governments often have different agendas, resources, and personalities that make implementing a national policy that is required to be coordinated and robust a difficult task. Additionally, as the prominence of DTOs followed by the emergence of self-defense groups in Michoacán shows, the federal government simply does not have the reach to control Mexico’s vast territory. State and municipal officials are easier to manipulate, extort, and corrupt than federal officials, and organized crime takes advantage of this fact.
Third, and perhaps most significant, Mexico’s issue with drug trafficking is really not Mexico’s issue. Any country can only have a limited impact on the consequences of international economic activity, and the “drug problem” starts in the Amazonian countries of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and flows necessarily through Mexico to reach it’s target market in the United States. While coordination between Mexican government forces and the self-defense groups has probably had a net positive impact on the state of affairs in Michoacán, the unfortunate truth is that Mexican policy is incapable of dealing with the American demand for drugs.
1) Latin American Weekly Report, 01 May 2014. “Out with the old, in with the new in Michoacán?” Latin News. Available at www.latinnews.com
2) Fausset, Richard and Cecilia Sanchez. “Beltran Leyva cartel figure and Michoacan mayor arrested in Mexico.” Los Angeles Times. Available at http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-mexico-drug-cartels-20140416-story.html
3) Wilkinson, Tracy and Cecilia Sanchez. “Vigilantes to Disarm in Mexico’s Michoacan State.” Los Angeles Times. Available at http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-mexico-michoacan-vigilantes-20140415-story.html
4) BBC. “Mexican army begins disarming vigilantes in Michoacan.” Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27200412