Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jan 2014
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Fausset

Mexico Under Siege


MEXICO CITY - Federal authorities rushed Monday to head off a 
mini-civil war in the "hot land" of Mexico's Michoacan state, urging 
rural vigilantes to lay down their arms and go home rather than 
attempt to seize a city of 90,000 that has become a stronghold of a 
drug cartel calling itself the Knights Templar.

The armed peasant groups emerged last year to fight off the cartel, 
which had metastasized throughout the southwestern state, 
coordinating the lucrative methamphetamine trade and extortion 
rackets and wielding significant control over the major container 
port of Lazaro Cardenas. Until recently, the self-defense groups had 
been largely tolerated, if not encouraged, by President Enrique Pena 
Nieto's administration, which had allowed them to staff some 
roadblocks alongside federal police and soldiers.

But in the last week, the groups have taken control of a number of 
communities surrounding the city of Apatzingan. Their leaders 
declared that their goal was to drive the cartel out of the city for good.

Facing a possible bloodbath, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio 
Chong convened Pena Nieto's security Cabinet on Monday afternoon in 
Morelia, Michoacan's capital. He announced that the federal 
government would assume control of security matters in Tierra 
Caliente, or Hot Land, the fertile agricultural region that has 
become a deadly battleground. From now on, he said, illegality will 
be dealt with in a "severe and inflexible manner." Hundreds of troops 
and federal police officers have been deployed to the region, but in 
some cases they have been reluctant to get too involved in the 
escalating conflict: When armed vigilantes over the weekend rolled 
into the town of Nueva Italia, less than 20 miles east of Apatzingan, 
soldiers stationed there reportedly did little more than look on.

Osorio Chong exhorted the self-defense groups to return home and said 
there would be "no tolerance" for anyone carrying unauthorized 
weapons. He suggested that vigilantes, rather than take up arms 
illegally, should join official police forces - or report suspected 
wrongdoing via a toll-free tip line.

In a radio interview minutes later, self-defense group leader 
Hipolito Mora vowed to "continue in our struggle," and said the 
groups had no intention of disarming. "It's easy to say [we should 
disarm], because they've never lived through the hell that we've 
lived through," Mora said, referring to what he said were years of 
cartel harassment.

"It's really sad that [the government is] against us," Mora said. 
"From my point of view, I'd want to be against the Knights Templar 
first. And after finishing with them, after finishing off that 
organization, the government wouldn't need to run after us."

Like many struggles in contemporary Mexico, the turmoil in Michoacan 
does not lend itself to a simple narrative of good guys versus bad 
guys. There is widespread suspicion that at least some of the 
vigilantes are fronts for rival drug cartels who may be engaging in a 
turf battle by proxy. And the Knights Templar, firebrand evangelical 
Christians who portray themselves as the saviors of their state, have 
a dedicated following in Michoacan, particularly in Apatzingan. 
Masked groups of apparent Knights Templar followers have been setting 
fire to buildings and cars in the city in recent days to protest the 
vigilante presence nearby.

Michoacan Gov. Fausto Vallejo announced Monday that his government 
would relocate to Apatzingan, apparently in a show of resolve and 
support for the people there. Residents, meanwhile, said the city 
remained eerily quiet Monday as everyone, including troops and 
federal police, waited to see whether the vigilantes would arrive.

"The schools are closed, there's no activity," said carpenter 
Ezequiel Garcia, 67. "There's a lot of fear. I wanted to work today, 
but one of my sons called me and said not to go out."

Garcia said he listened to Osorio Chong's promise to restore order, 
but doubted the minister could do much to improve things. "The 
federal police are here, and they don't do anything.... And yes, the 
troops come, but after the [protesters] set fire to the cars."

Although the near-anarchy that has engulfed Michoacan does not 
threaten the stability of the country as a whole, it presents a 
daunting counter-narrative to the story that Pena Nieto would like to 
tell about Mexico. The president, who took office in December 2012, 
has pushed through ambitious economic and political reforms that he 
says will result in a more stable, transparent and affluent country.

For now, Michoacan is merely one of numerous swaths of Mexico that 
remain terrorized, and in some cases controlled, by drug cartels.

The latest U.S. State Department travel warning for Mexico, issued 
last week, noted significant criminal activity in 19 of the country's 
31 states, much of it committed by organized crime groups.

The violence in Mexico has continued even though Pena Nieto's 
predecessor, Felipe Calderon, spent most of his six-year term 
confronting the drug gangs with a militarized approach. During that 
time, tens of thousands of people died in the country from 
drug-related violence.

Even as the current administration has distanced itself from 
Calderon's strategy, it has struggled to find new solutions to the 
cartel scourge.

Pena Nieto inherited much of the Michoacan problem from Calderon, 
whose deployment of troops failed to pacify the state. In November, 
the administration sent troops and police to Lazaro Cardenas to 
retake the city and deny the Knights Templar a major source of 
revenue from its business dealings at the port. Osorio Chong said 
Monday that the government had succeeded in that goal.

But security analyst Alejandro Hope of the Mexican Competitiveness 
Institute said the administration's decision to treat the vigilantes 
as a "useful tool" against the cartels appears to have backfired, 
emboldening the self-defense groups to go on the offensive.

"They decided they were the ones who were going to set the terms of 
cooperation with the government, and the government had to follow," 
Hope said. "Now that has led to a very, very dangerous situation. If 
and when they decide to move into Apatzingan, it could be a pretty 
bloody situation."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom