Taking Safety into Their Own Hands

 /  Feb. 1, 2014, 12:09 p.m.

Casa de las Artesanías de Michoacán

The Self-Defense Council of Michoacán seized control of the Michoacán town of Nueva Italia from the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar, in English) cartel in an armed invasion on January 12. This marked the latest success in a campaign by the vigilante group to liberate towns in the Terra Caliente region from the control of the cartel, which governs the area through kidnapping, extortion, and terror.

The vigilantes surrounded the town hall of Nueva Italia and disarmed local police, whom the self-defense groups claim operate under the oversight of the Caballeros Templarios. It was reported that “gunfire could be heard around the city.” The severity of the armed conflict between the two groups remains uncertain, but it is clear that the Caballeros have fled the town for now. While a “tense calm” reportedly spread in the wake of this latest clash, the overarching conflict that triggered it is far from resolved.

The Caballeros Templarios officially formed in 2011 and originate from La Familia Michoacana, a powerful cartel that was weakened when its leader, known as El Chayo, was killed in a shootout with government officials in Apatzingán in 2010. La Familia was notorious for smuggling methamphetamine, decapitating enemies’ bodies, and massacring police and soldiers.

Despite La Familia’s brutality and tactics of terror—which included beheadings, kidnappings, and extortion of local businesses—the cartel earned the nickname Cártel Religioso, or Religious Cartel. They presented themselves as an altruistic organization that took justice into its own hands by exacting punishments for kidnappers, rapists, and other enemies of the people of Michocán.

In March 2011, thirty “narcomantas,” banners used to announce news in cartel-controlled areas, proclaimed that Los Caballeros Templarios would continue to carry out the “altruistic activities” previously conducted by La Familia Michoacana until the death of its leader. To a large extent, Los Caballeros has simply acted as a continuation of its disbanded ancestor by exercising quasi-feudal authority in a region where influence from the Mexican government is weak.

In contrast, relatively little is known about the invading vigilantes. Opponents and critics worry that they may be acting under orders of a rival cartel. The group denies this allegation. Some members have links to Los Angeles gangs, but their resistance to the Caballeros appears to be a response to extortion and unlivable conditions imposed by cartel rule. A vigilante leader known as El Love (The Love, in English) expressed anger at the injustices committed by the cartel, and condemned the violence that characterizes the group. Regardless of their motivation for the takeover and subsequent uprisings in Michoacán, the vigilantes have brought public attention to the harsh reality of narcokleptocracy in Mexico.

In the week following the takeover of Nueva Italia, thousands of Mexican soldiers were deployed to Michoacán to seize weapons from self-defense groups. Since then, they have been patrolling the streets of towns, disarming local police officers and arresting suspected cartel affiliates. These troops have been tasked most notably with maintaining peace in Apatzingán, regarded as the headquarters for Los Caballeros Templarios. It appears that the vigilantes hope to advance to Apatzingán to displace the cartel entirely, but the soldiers’ arrival has stalled their plans.

The federal presence in Michoacán, however, appears to have only frozen the security crisis and has not yet helped progress toward a resolution. Distant officials have called for disarmament on all sides, but vigilantes on the ground have largely ignored this command. A disarmed vigilante force, they reason, would become a sitting duck for the Caballeros.

Government officials fear that militia rule could easily devolve into the type of abusive, quasi-feudal regime the groups are attempting to destroy. At the same time, though, the vigilantes have inflicted a harsher blow to the Caballeros than government forces have since the cartel’s founding. Since assuming office, President Peña Nieto has attempted to downplay his country’s security issues and has shifted his focus toward economic growth. Mexican leaders now face a difficult decision: should they focus on ousting narcokleptocrats now, or is there work to be done before addressing security issues?

At this point, doing nothing is not an option—without some sort of government intervention, Michoacán will endure a new strain of an old disease: vigilante justice. But the options for restoring order to rural Mexico are few. In the short run, it ought to collaborate with the vigilante forces in order to successfully weaken cartel control. In the long run, it needs to face the problem of security against narcokleptocracy. A more efficient structure must connect far-flung provinces to Mexico City so that the government can control its country. Citizens of Michoacán may thank the vigilantes now, but this uneasy equilibrium

Dana Scott