This story is over 5 years old.


Michoacan, the Birthplace of Mexico's Drug War, Is Still a Violent Quagmire

Troops marched into Michoacan in 2006, then federal forces came again in 2014, in response to a growing militia movement. A year after that, violent attacks, extortion, and impunity pervades across the "Hot Land" region.
Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP

In December 2006, former Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched the country's current war against organized crime by sending troops to his home state Michoacan, a place that is now bristling with tension and renewed fears after a string of shootings in recent days.

One year after the federal government sent a special commissioner to take over security in Michoacan, claiming the commissioner would disarm the militias that had risen up against drug gangs, the state is still violent and impunity still pervades for serious crimes such as extortion, kidnapping, and homicide.


The militias remain armed and the violence appears to show no sign of letting up, signalling the persistent inability of federal forces to create tranquility for residents caught in the cross-fire between opposing forces.

On Sunday morning, five autodefensa militia members from the tiny Pacific coast community of Huahua were killed after being ambushed by a group of unidentified armed men on a dirt road heading toward a ranch called El Socorro.

Last Tuesday, January 6, nine people died after what authorities called a shootout between federal forces and members of another civilian militia who had been occupying the city hall in Apatzingán, about 315 miles west of Mexico City.

But witnesses insisted some of the victims tried to surrender, screaming, "Don't shoot," according to the Associated Press. Graphic photos circulated online of a group of victims found in a pile embracing one another, suggesting an intentional massacre.

A few hours ago in Apatzingan Mexico. — NO VEAS TELEVISA (@YaMeCanseDELPRI)January 6, 2015

Is there a forensics expert in the house who can evaluate the integrity of this crime scene from today in Apatzingán? — Shannon Young (@SYoungReports)January 6, 2015

Federal officials on Monday denied the accusations of extrajudicial executions of the militia members who were forced out of the building, and said all but two of the victims were struck by friendly fire.

A shootout in mid-December between rival self-defense groups in the town of La Ruana, near Apatzingán, killed 11, including the son of lime grower Hipólito Mora, who founded the vigilante movements formed to fend off the Knights Templar drug cartel.


Michoacan Breaks Bad, Again, After Shootout Between Rival Militias Kills 11. Read more here.

The Knights Templar symbolizes the fruits of the divide-and-conquer strategy of Mexico's federal security forces, for better or worse. The gang formed after the crippling of the cartel La Familia Michoacana — making the Knights Templar another example of a cartel emerging from a split or destruction of a larger group.

The cult-like "Familia" helped spark Calderon's military push against organized crime by bowling human heads onto a dance floor in 2006. La Familia split in 2010, sparking a criminal war over control of Michoacan's lucrative meth and agricultural markets. The Knights Templar faction prevailed.

The gang then dove deeper into illegal activities such as extortion, to the point that shoe shine boys and fruit vendors paid them part of their profits, until the self-defense groups began forming in February 2013, and started running them off.

Now the self-defense groups appear to be fighting each other, or carrying out the same illegal acts they once combatted.

Further clouding the battle lines, former cartel members in some cases join the ranks of the vigilantes forces, a phenomenon leading to fatal confrontations between opposing self-defense groups.

Mexico's Self-Defense Militias Follow Cartels Into Deadly Internal Conflict. Read more here.

Alberto Suarez Inda, the recently appointed archbishop of Morelia, Michoacan. (Photo by David Agren)

"There's a big confusion," said Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia, the Michoacan state capital, in an interview with VICE News.


"They changed their shirts and now they're self-defense forces," he said of the so-called arrepentidos, or "repentant ones" who leave criminal gangs to join the vigilantes.

Pope Francis elevated Suarez to cardinal only recently, on Jan. 5. The appointment was widely seen as a sign of the Vatican's dissatisfaction with the poor security situation in Michoacan, which has claimed the lives of priests and lay church members alike.

For one parish priest in the state's Tierra Caliente region, or "Hot Land" — so named for its scorching climate, but also reflective of the "heat" created by organized crime — the situation has deteriorated over the last year.

"We're a little worse off now," said Father Patricio Madrigal, a pastor in the town of Nueva Italia, and one of the many priests who's offered spiritual support to those fighting back. "Before, we all had the same enemy. Now we don't know. No one is protecting us."

New Rural Police Force Emerges After 'Death' of Autodefensas. Read more here.

The shootouts and slayings — plus lingering suspicions that the government gave guns and badges to unsavory locals characters — show that Michoacan is in morass, leaving many residents wondering if the region's long history of illegal activity is impossible to overcome.

"Many of the people that got involved with self-defense groups, besides being citizens, many are farmers, many have had some sort of relations with narcotics trafficking," said Miguel Angel Sanchez, editorial director at the Michoacan news agency Quadratín.


"The state, or the groups of the state, that should be guaranteeing security, are not only are not guaranteeing security, but they're acting like criminal groups. They're following the strategies of the hit men," he said.

'It's what happens when you put in a political operator.'

The situation has also generated uncomfortable questions on whether fighting crime was ever the top concern of an image-conscious federal government.

President Enrique Peña Nieto started his term in December 2012 by simply not talking about insecurity, which was seen as detrimental to Mexico's international image as the administration promoted a pro-investment agenda.

He eventually responded to the crisis in Michoacan, though, by appointing a trusted operator, Alfredo Castillo, as the state's new commissioner for security and development. The appointment on January 15, 2014 — a year ago this Thursday — made Castillo the de facto governor of Michoacan, or a federally mandated "viceroy," as some critics contend.

"There's an intention of putting a happy face on things, and permit the people to continue doing business," said Sanchez.

Castillo pinned badges on some of the vigilantes, arming them and naming them to a Rural Force, and thereby spreading a media message of a Michoacan moving toward peace.

"Castillo has been putting out fires from the moment he arrived, and has also started some others," Jorge Kawas, an independent security analyst, told VICE News. "It's what happens when you put in a political operator."


In recent months, the focus of news coverage on Mexico turned to Guerrero, where students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were attacked and kidnapped by a local police force.

"The killing of these [43] students made it so that national and international attention turned toward Guerrero," Sanchez said. "But this doesn't mean that things have been resolved in Michoacan."

The Michoacan state attorney general's office said it was investigating Sunday's attack on the Pacific coast, and federal and military forces sent reinforcements to the region. One of the victims was identified as Rafael Meraz Arteaga, commander of the autodefensa militia in Huahua.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Fighting the Knights Templar Cartel.

In photo above, Mexican federal police forces patrol a street in Apatzingán, Michoacan, on Jan. 8, 2014.

Follow David Agren on Twitter @el_reportero.