Interrogating the Uprising in Michoacán

(By: Daniel Gutiérrez)

Since January, global media outlets have continued to be rocked by images of the autodefensa (spanish for self-defense) uprising in Michoacán. On the Left, people applaud what appeared to be a new autonomous movement that challenged the power of the Mexican state. However, critical questions must be asked regarding the uprising. Primarily, who is running the show?

The sudden armament of tens of thousands of peasants and workers should cause some sense of alarm, especially in a country where weapons are illegal. Regardless, the case in Michoacán demonstrates quite clearly the government lost its monopoly on violence.

A History of Violence

Michoacán’s economy is largely based on agricultural production. Following the economic crisis of the 1980s and the integration of the Mexican economy into that of the United States and Canada via NAFTA, farmers were hit hard. Due to competition with the agro-industrial giant of the United States, local prices on agricultural goods were forced to compete and thus lowered drastically. Since then, a huge diaspora of Mexican rural workers was initiated and many moved north into the United States.

Those that stayed witnessed the continued rise of the drug cartels. Most assuredly, as the country privatized its economy the strength of the cartels also grew, as their employment pool boomed due to economic displacement. Though this phenomenon hit the entire country, the agricultural economic structure of Michoacán made it particularly vulnerable to increased drug production.

Following Calderón’s outright war against the cartels, many of the old organizations began to fragment. New groups rose to power as other ones were extinguished in the purge. The Mexican government, for whatever reason, fool-heartedly seems to believe that the narco was a militaristic problem and through better policing and military intervention could be controlled, if not altogether destroyed. However, the cartels are hardly a militaristic problem, if not an economic and social one, born out of a process of economic necessity and criminalization. To view the narco as a societal outsider is simply foolish — the narco is an integrated product of mexican society.

During the fragmentation process of the old guard of cartels, the Knights Templar formed in 2011 from a splintering of an older cartel known as La Familia Michoacana. The Knights Templar rose to power following the death of Nazario “el Chayo” Moreno González, leader of the Familia Michoacana, in December of 2010. Servando ‘”la Tuta” Gómez Martínez then created The Knights Templar drug cartel.

The cartel grew quickly. One of the reasons being that it recruited former drug addicts and rehabilitated them and then gave them work. In a sense, this contrasts the neoliberal model of the government’s mode of combatting drug users. Cleaned and given work, an immediate sense of loyalty was created, whereas the Mexican government imprisons drug users rather than treating them as health patients. Furthermore, for those consumers who purchased drugs from the cartel and displayed serious signs of addiction, rehabilitation was forced. In short, the Knights Templar filled in the social investiture that the government was unwilling to facilitate.

This self-portrayal as the defenders of the poor is underlined by their online-representation. As Vice magazine pointed out, the fact that la Tuta’s Youtube communiques were able to gain far more views than the president’s state of the union address says a great deal towards his presence in the national stage. Additionally, the cartels code of honor caught the national eye, as booklets distributed by the cartel were published and reviewed by the media. According to the booklets, the Knights Templar “struggled against the materialism, the injustice, and the tyranny of the world” — this, despite the pretentious show of their own acquisitions. Regardless, the Knights Templar cartel were able to create a highly sophisticated business model and PR campaign based on indoctrination.

A Rising Tide

As the Knights Templar grew in strength and numbers, so did the extorsion. According to the autodefensas this was incredibly burdensome. But, it was the fact that the cartel began to rape the local women that caused them to say enough.

With the new year it seemed the military campaign began. Strangely, twenty years after NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising, another Mexican state known for unrest rose up to take action. Support groups all over social media outlets began to spring up. Todos somos Michoacán (all of us are Michoacán) was the latest hashtag. The narrative of the Narco as public enemy #1 and the armed vigilante as protector of the night became the name of the game. After years of a supposed war by a corrupt government, it was an easy rallying cry to fall behind. But surely, the systematic execution of citizen by citizen can’t be the answer, right?

There should be suspicion regarding the uprising. Primarily the fact that there are 25,000 heavily armed people roaming the state of Michoacán. When images first came out of the autodefensas a few years back, they were only armed with rancher’s rifles that are permitted by the government via licensing. However, there’s been a drastic change in their presentation. Now they are armed with military grade assault rifles equipped with extended magazines. Some of the autodefensas even carry heavy body armor. The old pick-up trucks have been replaced by new ones that sport decals. Some of the autodefensas even wear printed t-shirts with designed logos that say “autodefensa”. This level of professoinalization hints to the probability that the autodefensas have outside support.

This leaves a handful of possible answers. A far-flung possibility is that the autodefensas have been performing a Guevarian guerrilla campaign and obtaining weapons, cash, and hardware via hit-and-run tactics. A closer possibility (but still unlikely) is that the weapons and the body armor are easily accessible via the black market and are cheap enough for extorted and taxed people to buy. A potentially more reasonable answer would be that a rich individual or organization is funding the campaign.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma?

The Mexican government has had a difficult time catching up with events in Michoacán. The immediate response of the government was to attempt to disarm the autodefensas but this was impossible. Too many people, too well armed, and with too much popular support left the government with little option but to allow them to continue existing. So, the next thing the government attempted to do was incorporate them into the federal body and try to wrangle control. This has been the classic PRI answer to all political questions, and one that allows for eventual corruption and flaccidity. But then, two days later on the 30th of January, the federal government announced that the autodefensas were funded by rival cartels… A confusing turn of events, indeed.

But let’s think about this for a moment. Who gains from an armed vigilante army in Michoacán? The people of Michoacán (that are not related to the Knights Templar), surely, but last I checked, philanthropists don’t fund armies unless there’s something in it for them. Of course, one must take everything the Mexican government says with a grain of salt, but perhaps there’s method in the madness of a cartel funding a vigilante army.

The problem with the Knights Templar’s area of operation is that they are isolated in the middle of the country. They do control important drug routes and ports, but its not that lucrative if you still have to sell your merchandise to other cartels that function as middlemen. But the capitalist logic is to always cut out the middleman. Hence, it would be in the interest of rival cartels to take over Michoacán. If such were the case, a creatively destructive way to do it with the sanction of the government would be to fund a vigilante army.

Of course, another possibility would be that large estate-owning families may be behind the uprising as well. The EPR (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, Revolutionary Popular Army), a Marxist guerrilla group, is accusing that the government has effectively created a right-wing paramilitary force given the recent institutionalization of the autodefensas. Even Insight Crime gestures that the possibility is real, given the history of Colombia. These families that controlled the state for centuries with a paternaistic system might hope to profit from the destruction of the Templars, and as in Colombia, begin to grow the drugs themselves. Regardless, it is hard to speculate whether they still have the money and the power to build up such an army in such a short amount of time.

Too little, too late?

Regardless of origin, the autodefensas continue their campaign, though now accompanied by the military.  In a further effort to show attention, the government has offered 3.4 billion dollars towards public expenditure in the state of Michoacán alone. Whether this will be enough to quell the people is highly unlikely, as heads continue to roll in the countryside as a warning to all aligned with the cartel.

In case there is any question, Michoacán is in a state of civil war.

Whatever is behind the events, only one thing is clear — the inefficiency of the Mexican government’s attempt to battle “the war on drugs” has created social decay in the state of Michoacán.

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