Cartel land, again

The analysis of the relationships between criminal organisations, autodefensas and the three levels of government in the Mexican state of Michoacán offered in my book The New War on the Poor was completed before the Federal Special Commissioner for Security and Integral Development, Alfredo Castillo, was removed from this post in January 2015 (to be subsequently appointed head of the National Sports Commission). The official pretext for ending Castillo’s mission was that the continued presence of a figure who was dubbed “the Viceroy” by local politicians would complicate the forthcoming elections in the state. Those elections resulted in the victory of the candidate of the PRD, Silvano Aureoles, with 36.17% of the votes cast.

Although Aureoles defeated the candidate of President Peña Nieto’s own party, the PRI, he in fact enjoyed the backing of the federal government, for a variety of reasons including the fact that the previous PRI administration in Michoacán had been tarnished by accusations that key figures had been working with the Knights Templar drug cartel that Castillo was charged with dismantling. From the start, the new governor took a strong stand on the need to drive all criminal organisations from the state and restore peace and security to the people of Michoacán. He promised to work closely with federal security forces, whose presence in the state was reinforced. He also insisted that a return to the rule of law meant the demobilisation and disarming of the remaining autodefensa groups, although routes would remain open for former autodefensa participants who did not have criminal records or connections to enter the official state police forces. Putting a definitive end to the independent autodefensas appears to have been high on the agenda of a meeting that the PRD candidate for governor held with President Peña Nieto before the elections.

The new governor is now approaching the end of his first year in office and has claimed major advances in improving security and reducing violence. But these claims are being strongly and publicly disputed by both journalists and a variety of local actors, with apparently good reason. Recent symptoms of disorder have included protests and roadblocks, which the state government has declared acts of desperation by groups whose criminal activities are increasingly threatened, notably the controversial Viagras of the Apatzingán region. The Viagras were used by Commissioner Castillo in the campaign against the Templarios, despite claims made at the time about their involvement in crime. A Federal Police operation against them led to considerable loss of life after members of the group occupied the Apatzingán town hall in protest against government failure to pay them for their services. The roadblocks and bus burnings this month were answered by the arrest of 32 members of the group, and the state prosecutor’s office insisted that the killing of one of its leaders (allegedly a “repentant” Templario) while he was parking his BMW in a street in Apatzingán was a “road rage” incident. But there has actually been a lot of killing recently amongst people with known and longstanding roles in the criminal organisations of the region.

A less comforting explanation of what is going on focuses on two processes. On the one hand, the “New Generation” Cartel of Jalisco (whose roots are in Michoacán) has now become the dominant crime organisation in the state, replacing the Templarios in this role. On the other hand, a series of smaller groups are now fighting bitterly over control of local drug markets and distribution systems, plus other rackets. Readers of my book will recognise some of the actors involved because they participated in the formation of autodefensa groups, some of which, notably the group called H3, can now be recognised as what journalists Francisco Castellanos and José Gil Oleos call “a fourth generation of delinquents in the state” in an article in this week’s Proceso magazine (Number 2060, 23 April 2016). So, very much as I feared, a highly questionable public security operation against one cartel has served the interests of another but also produced a process of fragmentation that is causing ever more violence.

Some of this violence is going on within the ranks of the former autodefensa groups and manifesting itself in new conflicts between and within them that reflect  realignments in the world of crime and the continuing impacts of the networks spun by criminal actors within society and politics. The PRD municipal president of Aquila was recently the victim of an assassination attempt that was allegedly carried out by members of a former autodefensa group from the village of Cachán. In an interview given to El Universal newspaper, the leader of the Viagras, Nicolás Sierra Santana, has accused the state attorney, Martín Godoy Castro, of having made a pact with the New Generation Cartel. Plenty of other charges are being made in the narco-banners that are now reappearing in the region’s drug war hot spots, and a new armed group calling itself IRIS has posted videos on YouTube. So although the “pacification” of Michoacán seems to have led to the replacement of one dominant cartel by another, and those of us who stressed the ambiguous nature of many of the autodefensas, and the irresponsibility of Commissioner Castillo’s approach, have been vindicated by events, this unhappy history seems destined to continue to unfold in ways that oblige us to take government claims about improvements in the security situation with a considerable pinch of salt.