Pubdate: Tue, 29 Oct 2013
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Jo Tuckman


Tixtla - Newly formed militias worry criminal gangs - and 
authorities, who fear they may become a rebel force

With their scuffed shoes, baggy trousers and single shot hunting 
guns, the eight men preparing to patrol their hillside barrio in the 
southern Mexican town of Tixtla hardly looked like a disciplined 
military force. But this motley collection of construction workers 
and shopkeepers claim to have protected their community from Mexico's 
violent drug cartels in a way the police and military have been 
unable or unwilling  to do.

"Since we got organised, the hit men don't dare come in here," said 
one young member of the group, which had gathered at dusk on the 
town's basketball court, before heading out on patrol. "Extortions, 
kidnappings and disappearances are right down."

Over the past year, vigilante groups like this have sprung up in 
towns and villages across Mexico, especially in the Pacific coast 
states of Guerrero and Michoacan. They make no pretence to be 
interrupting drug trafficking itself but they do claim to have 
restored a degree of tranquillity to daily life.

In a country where the police are commonly felt to commit more crime 
than they prevent, the militias have won significant popular support, 
but they have also prompted fears that the appearance of more armed 
groups can only provoke more violence.

Tensions exploded this weekend when a march by self-defence groups 
triggered a gun-battle between gunmen and federal forces in the city 
of Apatzingan, followed by attacks on power stations that left 
hundreds of thousands without electricity.

Nearly seven years after the government launched a military-led 
crackdown on the cartels, the weekend's events have caused many to 
ask if the new government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is 
presiding over the first rumblings of an undeclared civil war.

"Perhaps the closest antecedent is the civil wars of central 
America," said an editorial posted on the widely-read news site Sin Embargo.

The weekend's violence began on Saturday when a group of militiamen 
marched on the city, saying they were responding to calls for support 
by residents there who want to set up their own self-defence group. 
Similar groups claim to have forced the brutal Knights Templar cartel 
out of smaller towns in the region, but Apatzingan, capital of the 
Tierra Caliente region, has remained largely in the hands of the drug barons.

Troops allowed the marchers into the city after they had disarmed, 
but when they gathered in the central square, they came under attack 
from gunmen on the rooftops  including some who were reportedly 
stationed in the cathedral belltower. A video shows people running 
for cover as federal police officers appear to return fire at the attackers.

At the end of the day, the marchers withdrew after the army agreed to 
step up patrols and include observers from the self-defence groups. 
But the movement's leader, Jose Mirales, warned reporters that the 
fight was not over. "We are going to make sure that organised crime 
is expelled from Apatzingan," he said. "They will try to respond."

That response came just hours later, when, shortly after midnight, 
nine electricity substations were firebombed in a string of almost 
simultaneous attacks. More than 400,000 people were left without 
electricity. At least four petrol stations were also torched.

In a statement, Mexico's interior ministry promised that: "The 
actions of the criminals will not stop the actions of the government 
to protect the population."

But while the government claimed order had been restored to 
Aptazingan, the tension continued into Sunday when a second group of 
civilians marched on the local army base. The Knights Templar were 
widely believed to be behind this second march that demanded federal 
forces withdraw their protection from the self-defence groups. Also 
on Sunday, five bodies were reportedly found on the outskirts of the 
city, all wearing t-shirts identifying them as members of the 
self-defence groups.

The cartel has deep roots within the civilian population of the 
Tierra Caliente and has proved capable of mobilising its supporters 
in demonstrations. The cartel has also accused the vigilantes of 
being fronts for an attempted incursion into the area by a rival 
crime group, the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

But while the militia near Aptazingan appears to enjoy some support 
from federal forces, the government has shown far less tolerance of 
similar groups in the neighbouring state of Guerrero.

This is the case of the group in Tixtla, which lies just outside the 
Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo, at the start of the main 
route into the mountain range of the Sierra Madre del Sur, whose 
slopes and deep valleys are dotted with secret plantations of 
marijuana and opium poppies. The area is said to be the hub of a 
criminal group known as Los Rojos (The Reds), one of the many 
remnants of the once-mighty Beltran Leyva cartel, who locals say 
operate with the complicity of the authorities.

Locals describe how gunmen would hang out at the local petrol 
station, checking on movements in and out of the barrio; how entire 
families would be abducted or forced to flee their homes.

"Nobody was doing anything about it so we had to, because we want to 
be safe and we want to be free," said a young mother, nursing her 
baby as the militiamen prepared to head out on patrol. "Now the army 
want to disarm us but if that happens the hitmen will come back."

Relations between the Guerrero's self-defence groups and the 
authorities have deteriorated further since the arrest in August of 
the charismatic female leader of another self-defence group in 
Olinala, four hours drive into the mountains from Tixtla.

Nestora Salgado, a returned migrant in her 40s, became one of the 
symbols of the Guerrero vigilante movement after taking charge of an 
uprising in October 2012 that began during the funeral for a taxi 
driver who had been murdered days after a mobile phone vendor.

When the rumour broke out that another driver had been kidnapped, 
townspeople stormed the local police station and disarmed officers, 
before setting up barricades to prevent cartel gunmen from returning 
to the town.

Soon after they started regular community patrols that by the middle 
of this year were being accused of abusing their newfound power. On 
21 August a joint army, navy and state police operation arrested 
several community police members and put Salgado herself into a high 
security jail hundreds of miles away, accused of kidnapping.

The swoop on Olinala triggered marches, road blocks and standoffs 
around the region that led to more arrests of vigilantes and seized 
weapons, not always by the authorities.

Hoping to avoid a full-blown crackdown, most of the Guerrero 
self-defence groups have since retreated into their strongholds and 
hidden away their higher calibre guns. But there is little evidence 
that they are about to fade away meekly.

Meanwhile, the military presence has grown, with the truckloads of 
soldiers trundling along mountain roads and army-run soup kitchens 
for the poor.

Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer from the Tlachinollan human rights group 
based in the area, believes the government is concerned that the 
self-defence groups will mutate into a guerrilla force, given the 
area's long rebellious tradition. "The government has this region 
marked as a place that has the potential to create another 
insurgency," he said.

Ruben Figueroa, a Guerrero state deputy who heads the local 
legislature's security commission is one of the few politicians who 
openly expresses these fears. "I have reliable information that some 
of these [vigilante] groups have been infiltrated by subversives.

"They are trying to take advantage of the power vacuums that exist in 
isolated areas."

The vigilantes deny any such links but, whether true or not, they 
appear to distrust the army almost as much as the cartels. That 
hardly bodes well for the government's efforts to bring the Guerrero 
self-defence groups under control.

"The army wanted to detain and disarm us so we have to be careful 
now, but this is still our territory," said one member of the Tixtla 
patrol. "If the army ever tries to come in and shoot at us, then we 
will shoot back."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom