Michoacán’s government refuses to turn. Ostula resists.

The state government of Michoacán has announced that the Ostula leader Cemeí Verdía will not be released from gaol despite the apparent collapse of the remaining charge of theft. They are still working on further charges, including a new effort to make homicide charges stick. The story so far suggests that the accusations on which such charges will be based are likely to be made by individuals directly associated with organised crime.

Michoacán’s “legally constituted authorities” are also turning a deaf ear to the protests of former autodefensa leader Hipólito Mora that the criminals operating in his part of the Tierra Caliente have regrouped and once again represent a direct threat to his personal security and that of his supporters. In a previous incident Mora lost a son in an armed clash. Although he has himself been to gaol twice, he is now talking about the need to revive the autodefensa movement.

The comuneros of Ostula have now announced that they will refuse to be disarmed. The prospects of further violence throughout the region are now considerable.

Ostula’s communal police force has a good track record of trying to respect the law of the state and its judicial institutions, despite the community’s insistence on its right to autonomy in managing its own internal affairs and defending its territory and resources. But as I have argued on many occasions, other kinds of local armed self-defence forces do sometimes turn into mafias in their own right or get co-opted by external mafias, including those associated with the exercise of regional political power.

A state enforced rule of law might well be considered a preferable alternative, if official institutions manifested a genuine commitment to upholding a rule of law that works for poor and powerless people as well as for the rich and politically connected. Unfortunately, such a “rule of law” has always been more of a popular aspiration than a reality in Michoacán and much of the rest of Mexico. Autodefensas sometimes mete out rough justice, but as a recent UN report confirmed, torture remains a habitual practice of the state’s law enforcement agents and the military in its policing role. Even in countries where a democratic and transparent rule of law is the norm rather than the exception, there is a lot to be said for local police forces being locally accountable to the people that they police.

In the case of Michoacán, state and federal government arguments about the need to eliminate armed self-defence forces that are locally controlled would be more convincing were it not for the continuing impunity that criminals enjoy in this region. Since the security forces that the Michoacán state government recognises as “legitimate” include people with criminal pasts, there are good reasons to believe that agents of federal security forces have also been complicit with criminals, and it seems that all forms of criminal activity continue to flourish in many areas of the state, it is hardly surprising that many citizens lack confidence in official “institutions”.

In these circumstances, accepting disarmament is tantamount to suicide for those local people who have actively sought to bring drug traffickers, extortioners and murderers to justice, in the complete absence of effective action on the part of either the state or federal governments. We already know that from recent history.

Even local criminals might do well to think twice before trusting in any backstage “impunity pacts’ that representatives of the state might offer them. Smaller fish have a tendency to be sacrificed in the farce that Mexico’s “war on drugs” has proved over the years. Such double-crosses are necessary to preserve credibility while maintaining the more strategic complicities with the big cartels that thoroughly permeate the rotting and fragmented fabric of Mexican state institutions and the Mexican political class.

The victims of all this impunity are ordinary Mexican citizens, and, increasingly, even the concept of “citizenship” itself. No group is more victimised by this structure of violence and deceit than those Mexicans, like the people of Ostula, who remain proud of their indigenous identity.

But violence is growing against social movements, activists and journalists throughout the country, including the capital. Another lesson we can learn from Michoacán is that it includes the kind of “deniable violence” that may be directly perpetrated by criminals but is intellectually authored by the powerful “legitimate” political and economic interests that hire such people to do their dirty work.