The pacification of Michoacán?

My book The New War on the Poor went to press before the Federal Special Commissioner for Security and Development in Michoacán, Alfredo Castillo Cervantes, was transferred to other duties as Director of the National Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, a move justified officially by the need to avoid controversy during the forthcoming state elections. A close collaborator of national President Enrique Peña Nieto with a controversial past record, Commissioner Castillo was dubbed “the Viceroy” by Michoacanos who were unenthusiastic about his contribution. The civilian Commissioner’s role in public security matters and command of the federal police was transferred to a military officer, General Felipe Gurrola Ramírez. The narrative of my book does cover most of the controversies surrounding what Commissioner Castillo did during his time in Michoacán, up to and including the arrest and incarceration of self-defence force (autodefensa) leader José Manuel Mireles Valverde. Subsequent events and developments have remained consistent with the line of analysis that I provided. But the book went to press before what has recently become one of the biggest of the controversies, the circumstances that led to the deaths of what, for Commissioner Castillo, remains a disputed number of civilians during a federal police operation in the city of Apatzingán on January 6, 2015.

The official version of events argues that the operation was made necessary by the threat to public security created by armed former members of the G-250 group created to aid the campaign against the Knights Templar cartel by Commissioner Castillo himself,  although its leaders had not only been accused of having a criminal past but of continuing involvement in illicit activities. These former members of an officially recognised auxiliary rural police force had established a picket at the front of the town hall to protest the fact that Castillo had dissolved G-250 without paying them their services. According to the Commissioner, almost all the deaths resulted from protestors catching their own comrades in cross-fire. The journalist Laura Castellanos provided evidence supporting an alternative to this official version of events, namely that federal forces intentionally massacred sixteen people who were unarmed, in the weekly magazine Proceso (number 2007, 19 April, 2015). A video presentation of the investigation, which was shared with the Aristegui Noticias website and the Univision TV network can be viewed on Vimeo here. Another short video on the Aristegui Noticias website provides reactions to this news from citizens, activists, and intellectuals who reflect on how this apparent “crime of the state” in Michoacán might relate to other recent cases, notably extra-judicial executions by the army in Tlatlaya in the State of Mexico, and the disappearance in the city of Iguala in Guerrero of 43 students from the rural teaching training college of Ayotzinapa, an institution whose students have a long history of militancy and being subject to state repression.

The short discussion of Guerrero in chapter 4 of my book was principally intended to explore how legacies of the counter-insurgency “dirty war” that began in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s remain relevant to understanding the violent politics of the state today, rather than to provide a detailed analysis of the contemporary situation. The original version of the chapter did include a brief reference to Iguala, but in relation to another episode of political violence in the municipality in 2013. Before the manuscript went to copy-editing, I was able to insert a brief discussion of what happened to the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala in September 2014. This recorded the widespread skepticism that existed from the start about the official version of those events, but further evidence continued to emerge in the following months. In the light of my research on the “dirty war” period, and continuing speculation about whether the drug traffickers of the group known as Guerreros Unidos had links with personnel in the local military base as well as with local police forces, I was particularly intrigued by something that I heard on the rather tastelessly “musicalized” video that the Federal Attorney’s Office put out in the course of its campaign to sell the “official version” as a “historical truth”. This can be viewed here on YouTube. In the official PGR video, Felipe Rodríguez Salgado, aka “El Cepillo”, alleged leader of a group of Guerreros Unidos gunmen, begins his testimony by describing how he was told that three “packets” (paquetes) were going to be delivered to him for disposal in the rubbish dump of the neighboring municipality of Cocula. “Packets” was the code that the military used for the many peasant victims of torture and forced disappearance in Guerrero during the dirty war. All Mexican governments have been firm in their resolve to deflect accusations of responsibility for forced disappearances and genocide away from the military since that period. But the exact role of federal forces on the night of the disappearance of the 43 students has remained a controversial issue kept alive by the determined campaigning of the parents of the victims. It is also important to remember that besides the 43 students who were disappeared, three more Ayotzinapa students were amongst six other people killed and left on the streets of Iguala itself. One of them, Julio César Mondragón, a twenty-two year old married man from the State of Mexico and father of a newborn baby, had had the skin cut from his face and his eyes gouged out before he died.

I am not in a position to shed further light on events in Guerrero, but what I can say in relation to the situation in Michoacán is that it seems that Commissioner Castillo’s strategy of backstage negotiations with some local dubious actors has, as many of us feared from the outset, led to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s taking over the position of dominant regional crime organization from the Knights Templar cartel. The CJNG is known to have supplied high-grade arms to some of the Michoacán autodefensas to assist in the weakening of its rival.  Although the state of Jalisco and metropolitan city of Guadalajara are major prizes for any cartel, and the CJNG also controls the small state of Colima and has extended its influence to Guerrero, Guanajuato, and Veracruz, this cartel actually has its origins in Michoacán’s tierra caliente. Its “new generation” of leaders are kin of the founders of the Milenio cartel that preceded the Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templarios. Its power is considerable since, allied with another group with roots in the tierra caliente, the Cuinis, the CJNG is involved in trafficking drugs not only to the United States but also to Europe and Asia, including China, which is both a supply region for precursor chemicals used in methamphetamine production and a buyer of illegally mined minerals. The situation remains unstable, particularly after recent violence in which the CJNG actually managed to down a military helicopter transporting a Special Forces unit as well as organise narco-blockades over a wide area, something it had done on a much smaller scale when I carried out new fieldwork in the region in 2012. Narco-violence has manifested itself once again in the 2015 local election campaign. But whatever happens in the longer term, developments since my book went to press reinforce its argument that we need to look carefully at the following things: the continuing transformation and fragmentation of the Mexican state and the country’s criminal organisations; the processes behind the “capture” of state agents at all three levels of government by private, including criminal, interests; the consequences of trying to use the military as a police force; and the consequences of using both the repressive apparatus of the state and the “deniable violence” of paramilitaries to impose forms of capitalist development that generate high levels of conflict.

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