A Member of the citizens’ council of the self-defense groups surrounding
Apatzingán, Michoacán, January 2014.
Photo By: Heriberto Paredes
January 26, 2014- Given the voices who see the emergence and spreading of the armed Self-Defense Movement against organized crime and the government inaction against those in Michoacán, as a worsening of the problem of violence in the state, I would like to compare a series of arguments pointing in the opposite direction.
Everything indicates that the Self-Defense Groups or comunitarios (as they like to call themselves) of Tierra Caliente emerged on February 24, 2013, in an almost simultaneous movement carried out in two villages. This is how it’s been stated in various interviews by two of the most famous people in the movement; Hipólito Mora of La Ruana and Dr. Juan José Mireles Valverde of Tepalcatepec.
As the latter has said, in a way, they took the example of the people of the P'urhépecha Plateau, particularly of Cherán, where the popular organization managed to expel not only drug traffickers, but also illegal loggers and political parties, who they say just divided the people.
Being a town where the indigenous people are the majority, Cherán is governed by a system of practices and customs (self-governance), therefore the city hall was replaced in 2011by a council of 12 members elected by an assembly and its Community Police has full legal recognition. Today, although they are still harassed by criminal groups, the inhabitants of Cherán are living in one of the safest places in Michoacán.
If you would like to learn more about Cherán and how they operate watch the video below about the Guarda Bosques (Forest Keepers)
The towns in the Tierra Caliente region present, on the other hand, significant differences regarding the P'urhépecha Plateau, issues that give special characteristics to their corresponding histories but run parallel and are involved in similar problems.
The first is the composition of its population, the majority of the population are mestizos in the Tierra Caliente region; landless farmers form it, owners of more or less prosperous avocado and lemon orchards, as well as cattle ranchers, transporters, and traders. Much of the economic activity in the region is oriented in exports. Therefore, it seems that in these towns social differences are more pronounced, however this doesn’t prevent people from participating in the movement. We have seen that people from all walks of life participate in this Self-Defense Movement.
Crime basically follows money. Thus, the second difference is that while in Cherán they tried to set themselves up after consulting with the sawmills, who were looking to access precious wood illegally, a multitude of production activities invaded the Tierra Caliente region through extortions and collecting dues, while also developing a management system and adjusting accounts that was corrupting and displacing public services. That is, the scale and diversification of economic activities in the latter region influenced the extent and complexity of the actions of the criminal networks that practically co-opted every corner where money is produced and power is exercised.
Finally, the people of Cherán managed to change its form of government that would be recognized at the state and federal level. Their decision-making, subjected to the sentiments of the community, proved to be less likely corroded by the power and money of the mafias; the indigenous tradition of community organizing reactivated in order to address organized crime. However, in the Tierra Caliente region, the resistance seems to be like a process that doesn’t want to stay as a tradition but just as an immediate need arising from the atrocious situations. It’s not looking to change the form of government, but wants the current government to function so they can go back to work in peace. They should, however, explore this possibility.
Other differences, such as the structure that the groups of people who’ve taken security into their own hands and who respond to crime, as well as the material resources made available, are derived from the above. More spontaneous and better armed, the comunitarios of Tierra Caliente have raised greater suspicion, even in some parts from the left, habitual critics who say that the Mexican state has failed in its strategy against the cartels.
It is certainly relevant to also distinguish between “Community Police” and “Self-Defense Groups” as has been written by Francisco López Bárcenas:
“The Community Police are part of the governing structures of the towns and they obey them, they’re responsible for its operation; its existence and operation are part of the rights of the indigenous peoples. The Self-Defense Groups however, are groups of citizens who organize and arm themselves in order to obtain security, and when they do, they disappear. But this isn’t easy, because nothing guarantees that the reason why they rose up in arms will disappear altogether; and also, they don’t have control over what their members seek. If they don’t disappear then they can become a problem or worse, be used by the government to control social unrest.”
I think it’s valid to ask:
Is it only possible to have a Community Police in communities where the indigenous people are the majority?
Is it possible for the Self-Defense Groups to evolve, that is, to become a part of the governing structures who govern communities?
Is there any other alternative left since local, state, and federal governments are easily corrupted?
We must not forget our greatest fear, that the Self-Defense Groups can be manipulated and subjected to the agenda of an undesirable person—whether they be corrupt politicians, cartels, bosses, corporations, etc. — it’s already been fulfilled by several corporations of the State who were supposed to provide security to the communities, such as the Municipal Police, some federal sectors, and as well as the Mexican Army.
In that sense, the suspicion that such groups have been encouraged, or in the best case scenario, tolerated by the State or sectors thereof, in order to “stir the river and fish in troubled waters”, I believe creates excessive distrust in the ability of the people to rebel against a state of things that are obviously unsustainable. Those who argue this forget that the alleged government tolerance has included several operations of disarmament directed towards the comunitarios rather than against members of the cartels, where in some instances people have been arrested and imprisoned, and even in a few cases, killed by Mexican soldiers.
Both the federal and state governments have accepted the existence and presence of the Self-Defense Movement very reluctantly, basically because they don’t have a choice; which is not to say that they won’t try to infiltrate it, use and modify it to meet their own agendas, implementing a kind of Colombian model. Therefore, it would be desirable that its members reflect and study other experiences, with the aim of organizing and establishing their own form of self-government in their communities to meet their own needs, so that it would shield against harmful ambitions as well as against the resurgence of old and new mafias.
All of the politicians who put up a project that involves the management and control of the lives of others by an elite, bet on the failure of the Self-Defense Groups. Why? Because its success can give rise to the construction of self-governance in areas beyond security. Given this, the fear of those who defend the “monopoly of violence” by the State, is an area for prey, which is greater than what any other cartel causes. And such fear is real.
The fact that the Self-Defense Groups of Tierra Caliente in Michoacán call themselves comunitarios, and that they’ve established a Citizens' Council shortly after the state and federal government disarmed and imprisoned dozens of members of the emerging Self-Defense Groups of Aquila (where the majority of the population is indeed indigenous) who organized themselves in order to confront the abuses of a mining company; Suggests that the civil organization confronting against organized crime and the inaction of the State, such as those that have been developed in the P’urhépecha Plateau, like in the Tierra Caliente region, can come together to learn from one another and support themselves.