Bring Us The Heads Of The Knights Templar

Organised vigilante groups in Michoacán, Mexico, have had success in driving out a major drug cartel and their police colluders. Their victory is part of Mexico’s DNA, writes Antonio Castillo.

If the state either abuses or fails to protect them, Mexicans look to history for solutions. Sometimes they take matters into their own hands. A year ago they did so when Mexico’s self-defence paramilitary forces reclaimed a large part of Michoacán from Los Caballeros Templarios, the country’s newest drug cartel.

Michoacán was, as historian Enrique Krauze reminds us, the site of the Mexican wars of the 19th and 20th centuries: the War of Independence, the War of Reform, the French Invasion, the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. Now it is the epicentre of the drug war.

Michoacán, in the country’s southwest, is one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most beautiful states. It’s also the most violent. Since 2010 it has been under the control of the so-called Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the newest drug cartel formed by a splinter group of La Familia (The Family), a pseudo-religious criminal group that in 2006 forced out the Zetas and Sinaloa drug cartels.

Members of Por Un Aquila Libre (For a Free Aquila), one of the vigilante groups.

Members of Por Un Aquila Libre (For a Free Aquila), one of the vigilante groups.

Some sectors of the international media have wrongfully described the self-defence groups — vigilantes — as a new phenomenon in Mexico. Actually, they’re nothing new. Self-defence armed groups have existed for centuries, and are responses to the abuses of the financial, political and criminal powers. They belong to the past as well as contemporary Mexican history.

Three years ago, indigenous people from Cherán, also in Michoacán, decided to battle illegal logging and drug violence by kicking out the police and running the town according to indigenous tradition. And 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the self-defence indigenous movement that restored order and self-determination in Chiapas. As one Mexican writer described it, “self-defence is in the DNA of our people.”

Last year, in February 2013, the people of Michoacán said basta! – enough of the drug cartels and also enough of Mexico’s institutional inability to protect them. A year ago — when the temperature reached an average of 32 degrees in Tierra Calientes, a region that extends some areas of the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Estado de Mexico — the self-defence movement arose once again from the annals of Mexico’s history.

Mexico’s self-defence organisations have an illustrious history. José Doroteo Arango Arámbula – better known by his pseudonym of Pancho Villa — is perhaps the embodiment of the tradition. Exhausted by the abuses of the powerful and the rein of impunity — his 14-year-old sister was raped by the owner of the ranch where they lived and worked — he took matters into his own hands. He killed the rancher and headed to the mountains where he formed a peasant self-defence organisation that would come to play a key role in the Mexican Revolution.

First with modest rifles and now with sophisticated weaponry today, self-defence organisations have recovered a large part of Michoacán from the drug cartels and have removed the local political elite and the chiefs of police, most of them corrupt and in collusion with criminals.

As Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach wrote in Foreign Affairs:

“Mexico has suffered staggering levels of violence and crime during the country’s seven-year-long war against the cartels. The fighting has killed 90,000 people so far, a death toll larger, as of this writing, than that of the civil war in Syria. Homicide rates have tripled since 2007.”

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is getting anxious. Mexico is embroiled in a three-pronged civil conflict; the state against the cartels, the cartels against other cartels, and now self-defence organisations against the cartels. A four-pronged conflict is not a far-fetched scenario, the state against the self-defence organisations in an attempt to disarm them.

In the last few months, Peña Nieto has gone on the offensive. He visited Michoacán and announced — last December — that the federal government, having struggled to defeat the cartels using corrupt local police and an inadequate military, would create an elite national police force of 10,000 officers by the end of 2014.

However, he has failed so far to domesticate the vigilantes. Peña Nieto has been forced to yield to the demands of the self-defence leadership. In a scene reminiscent of the 1974 Sam Peckinpah US cult film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, they have demanded the head of Servando Gómez Martínez’s, nicknamed La Tuta (the Teacher), the brutal leader of the Knights Tempar. If Peña Nieto can’t oblige, the vigilantes won’t hand over their weapons.

La Tuta and his Knights Templar.

La Tuta and his Knights Templar.

The success of the vigilantes so far is not insignificant. They have not only made the Templars retreat from Michoacán, but have forced the Mexican government to pour an unprecedented level of financial assistance into the state. Peña Nieto has said his government would invest the equivalent of about $3.4 billion in social and infrastructure programs for the besieged state.

Peña Nieto is also reaching back into Mexico’s history to prevent an escalation of the conflict. He is following the path of two great Mexican presidents, Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz, who in the last decades of the 19th century incorporated the numerous self-defence organisations into the legal sphere. They became known as Guardias Rurales (Rural Guards) and became key actors in the post-revolution pacification of the country.

Despair and impunity are perhaps the two words that best explain the reappearance of self–defence groups in Mexico today. Nonetheless, in a country where every half hour somebody is murdered, and the expansion of cemeteries has become a highly lucrative business, the pacification of the country seems to be a long way off.

Posted in New Matilda


Days Of Death In Mexico

Death has always been a big part of Mexican folklore, writes Antonio Castillo. But the brutal war being waged between Mexico’s drug cartels means that violent death is now a big part of everyday life.
In Mexico death is never too far away. It is part of the folklore. Shrines to the macabre Santa Muerte (Saint of Death) — adorned with flowers, bottles of tequila and cigars — are all around Mexico. It is a country where the feast of the “Day of Death” is a joyous celebration of those who passed away. Laughing white polished skulls, dancing cardboard skeletons, funeral wake games and the presence of the popular Catrina Calavera (a skeleton in a wedding dress) speaks of a society at ease with the idea of the dead.Well, Mexico used to be such a society. It’s not any longer. The drug war waged in Mexico today — the worst in the western hemisphere — has transformed the country into a graveyard. Drug-related violence killed 6000 people last year. And already more than 1000 have been murdered this year.

Wealthy and armed to the teeth, Mexican drug cartels are waging a brutal war for the control of the northern border, the key corridor for the traffic of cocaine from Colombia and Mexico to the United States.

In Mexico, death is no longer part of folklore. It’s feared. It’s gruesome. Dismembered human bodies are left in plazas, headless bodies are hung from bridges and bloody limbs, ears, and fingers are spread throughout the gardens of those threatening the interests of the powerful drug cartels. “Narcotraffic in Mexico has reached inconceivable and dehumanising extremes,” renowned Mexican writer and journalist Carlos Monsiváis said last year.

Pobre Mexico (poor Mexico) — so far from God and so close to the United States,” is a popular saying in the country. And it’s true that this is where part of Mexico’s problem lies. The Mexican drug cartels have obtained some of the most sophisticated weaponry from the United States. The US has also provided a massive consumer market for illicit drugs. “The addiction of [the] United States to drugs, the dollars and the weapons that travel through our border maintain the activities of the cartels,” said US Senator Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs.

Durbin told a Senate hearing last week that “Mexican drug cartels supply the vast majority of the cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana distributed in the Chicago area and Downstate.” He also said that poor US gun law enforcement had “armed Mexican drug cartels to the teeth”. In 2008, in one of the few successful anti-organised crime actions, the Mexican authorities seized 20,000 weapons from drug cartels. Most of them had been purchased in the US.

The US State Department has now listed Mexico — along with Pakistan — as a state at the brink of “rapid collapse”. Mexico as a “failed state” has already entered into the Washington narrative. Barry McCaffrey, the former Director of the US Drug Control Policy, warned Mexico is at risk of becoming a “narco-state” in the next five years if the situation doesn’t improve.

Washington is concerned the drug war is spilling over into the US. The US Department of Homeland Security and other US agencies announced an increase in military personnel deployed to the border and President Barack Obama said he is considering the deployment of the National Guard across the border. The US militarisation on the border with Mexico is not new. However, today it has become a major priority, only followed by the Iraq and Afghanistan war deployment.

If loss of control of its territory is an indicator of a failed state, Mexico can be considered one. The northern border has practically fallen under the control of narco-bosses. Sonora — one of the 31 states of Mexico — has been under the thumb of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán since the 1990s.

El Chapo (Shorty) — the maximum leader of the Sinaloa Cartel — is the most wanted man in Mexico and also one of the wealthiest thugs in the world. He was included in the last edition ofForbes magazine world’s richest, next to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc and New York City’s mayor Mike Bloomberg. El Chapo’s wealth is valued at US$1 billion.

El Chapo is also — along with the other drug bosses — one of the largest employers in Mexico. At least 450,000 people’s livelihood depends on the growth and commercialisation of marijuana and opium. The US Government says this “employment” generates around US$25 million annually.

A key strategy to gain control of Mexico’s northern border has been the drug cartels’ infiltration of the political and police institutions. El Chapo’s protégés have risen to influential positions in the state and local government, in the judiciary and in the police force. In Tijuana — the largest city of the Mexican state of Baja California — the majority of the police officers are on the payroll of the Tijuana Cartel, another powerful crime organisation masterminded by the Arellano Félix brothers.

Between 2006 and 2008, several high ranking federal agents and police were arrested due to their links with organised crime. Among them were Noel Ramírez, a leading anti-drug officer, and Víctor Gerardo Gara, who until 2008 was the acting director of the Federal Preventive Police.

According to the United Nations, Mexico is one of the five countries in the world with the highest level of organised crime. The international organisation said that corruption and the collusion between authorities and drug cartels was the main impediment to solving the crisis.

“It is well known that governors in different parts of Mexico are aligned to different cartels,” Dr Gabriela Coronado, an anthropologist at Mexico’s Research Centre and Higher Studies (CIESA) told Or as Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui puts it “the line between the State and crime is blurred”.

The Mexican state seems unable to stop the carnage. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón, from the conservative National Action Party, deployed 45,000 soldiers to quash the drug cartels. Three years later and more than US$6.5 billion spent, Calderon’s war has not only failed, but the level of violence has increased.

In response to the “failed state” warning given by the US, Calderón has announced the deployment of more troops — 3500 soldiers — in the city of Ciudad Juárez, considered to be Mexico’s violence capital. Last year 1600 people were murdered there.

Recently a group of prominent Latin American writers and intellectuals, including Brazil’s Paolo Coelho, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa and Nicaragua’s Tomás Eloy Martínez, said the war on drugs had not succeeded. They also accused the US administration of failing to introduce effective measures to reduce the consumption of drugs among its citizens.

According to the US State Department 90 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the US comes from Mexico, and the earning for cartels has reached massive sums: US$10 billion annually. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes hit the head on the nail when he said: “There are Mexican drug offers because there is US demand”.

Calderón has promised that by the end of his mandate in 2012 his war to topple organised crime will have been won. But, nobody — in Mexico or in the US — believes he will be able to defeat the narcotraffic.

In the meantime, as the carnage and bloodbath continues, Mexicans have no other alternative than to kneel and pray to the Santa Muerte that the cloak of violence enveloping the country will soon be lifted.

Posted in New Matilda