Michoacán's Community Watch Groups Carry Assault Rifles
Photos by Brett Gundlock
The Mexican state of Michoacán is balls deep in violence and corruption, and nobody seems to care. Distorted news reports about the situation are making it difficult to understand what’s really happening, but just yesterday nine people were found executed on the side of the road, and even the region's avocado farmers are being extorted. Despite kidnappings, marines murdered by hitmen, federal raids, and Mexico’s third-largest drug cartel (Los Caballeros Templarios) controlling the area, the government seems content to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that all is well in Michoacán.
It's no secret that when governments fail to protect residents of unstable regions the people will often form their own defense groups. VICE Mexico has covered groups like this in Cheran and Guerrero, and as a native of Michoacán I can tell you that it is no stranger to similar heavily armed community-watch organizations. The people are disgruntled by the government’s impunity, inefficiency, and incompetence, and many have taken it upon themselves to enact justice.
Brett Gundlock is a photojournalist who has worked at the National Post in Canada and is now fending for himself in the cutthroat world of freelance photography. Since 2012, he has traveled back and forth between Toronto and Michoacán documenting the ongoing activities of the area’s DIY defense groups. This project has led to El Pueblo, an ongoing photo series published in part for the first time here at VICE.
VICE: How are people in Michoacán holding up in the midst of all this violence and corruption?
Brett Gundlock: It’s amazing how life goes on, despite the crazy situation they face. People still smile, and the world continues to spin, but the residents are obviously affected. Business is affected due to the extortion, as well as the lack of tourism. The cartels have worked themselves into everyday life in many areas. We’ve heard there is a tax on everything from the meat to the tortillas.
The people I am photographing do not support the Mafia, obviously. I think a pretty small percentage of the population actually supports the cartels, and those who do are directly involved with these criminal organizations. That said, they don't necessarily support the Federales or the Ejército. They have brought some security to the area but they aren't exactly making high-profile arrests on a regular bases, nor stopping the problem at its root.
People outside of Michoacán are hazily informed on the situation at best. Do you believe the media is distorting what’s going on?
I’m not sure that the media is intentionally manipulating information (although I am sure in some cases they are). The main problem is the current structure of the media—they don’t give proper context to most stories they report on. When a news story can be summed up in 140 characters, most people will read that and move on. This is a major problem in our society.
Local newspapers, such as El Cambio de Michoacán, are doing a very good job on covering the news in Michoacán. But internationally, these brief wire stories are not contributing much to the overall conversation, which is vital in solving these problems.
What challenges did you face while working in Cheran?
Not being fluent in Spanish is the hardest part, but I’m studying Spanish now so that will be less of an issue in the future. Security is another challenge; every decision you make is important. Knowing where you can and can't go, who you can and can’t photograph, who you can talk to and who you need to avoid, wondering what’s happening outside your door at night, having an escape route at all times… it's a bit more stressful than working in Toronto.
What was your first trip to Michoacán like?
It was very good. I connected with a photographer, Alan Ortega from Morelia, and he drove me around that time. He also introduced me to Juan Jose Estrada Serafin, a local photojournalist. Both of those guys were fundamental in my ability to produce this series.
The first time I came I arrived right in the middle of a party, so it was very easy to start working quickly. I actually got run over by a horse in the middle of the rodeo while I was running from a bull, so that was a good introduction to the community—the entire town saw and laughed about it for weeks after. I quickly learned how to say caballo, which means “horse” in Spanish.
As an outsider who has spent a good deal of time in Michoacán, what is your personal opinion on the situation?
The war has progressed. By organizing, these pueblos have created a new frontline directly between the people and the cartel. This war has evolved past the traditional cops-versus-bad-guys dynamic. In a way it can be conceptually viewed as a civil war, or the start of a widespread revolution.
I have my fingers crossed for the people of Michoacán and Mexico.
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