Michoacán: an update

It is now some time since I last reported on developments in the Mexican state of Michoacán, so here is a note on what remains, overall, a less than happy panorama.

The new state government that entered office in October 2015, headed by Silvano Aureoles of the PRD, promised to get a firm grip on the security situation, in order to justify its determination to bring a definitive end to the formation of local autodefensa groups. It also promised to make progress with bringing jobs and greater prosperity to the state.

In a recent interview given to the website Cambio de Michoacán, Cemeí Verdía, former leader of the autodefensas of the Pacific Coast region, from the nahua indigenous community of Ostula, made it clear that the autodefensas have not really disappeared from the zone, although they could be said to have entered a new phase. Verdía’s position is delicate. Betrayed and imprisoned under the previous state government, he was not released until late December, despite the fact that had actively supported the candidacy of Aureoles and faced some criticism for doing so within his own movement. On his release he made declarations that indicated his acceptance of the state government’s authority on security matters and willingness to collaborate. This had really never been at issue in itself. He had simply accused the authorities of not doing their job effectively, drawn attention to important local problems such as the role of a mining company, and campaigned for the release from federal gaol of former autodefensa leader José Manuel Mireles Valverde.

The latest interview shows that not much has changed in his posture. He repeated his view that the continuing imprisonment of Mireles was unacceptable. He did, once again, express respect for the state government’s efforts and understanding of the practical problems that it faces, but argued that a central component of its (and the federal government’s) public security policy, a unified police force for both state and municipal levels, is a failure. The Mando Único policy is supposed to reduce the control of local police forces by criminal organisations, but Cemeí Verdía points to the relative inefficiency and distancing from local communities that this more verticalised structure creates (even leaving aside the ample evidence that elements of the security forces have been compromised at all levels in the past, including federal forces and high-ranking officials in Mexico City). He also points out that whilst the military might be patrolling the main highways, they are absent everywhere else in his zone, which is mountainous and has many unpaved back roads and small communities that are left unprotected. Furthermore, state police and the federal police and military do not enjoy the trust and confidence of local people. This is hardly surprising in the light of their past role in suppressing protests against mining, and in the case of the military, disarming communities and leaving them defenceless against armed criminals practicing generalised extortion, not mention a tragic episode in which the Marines themselves killed a young child.

Cemeí Verdía observes that in general the security situation in the state remains dire, a point of view expressed by other former autodefensa leaders such as Hipólito Mora. In fact, there are good grounds for arguing that it has got worse again, not just in the traditional “hot spots” of the Tierra Caliente such as Apatzingán and Nueva Italia, and, in Uruapan, a major city on the edge of that zone, but also in Los Reyes, a centre of sugar cultivation where I lived for over a year, and even Zamora, an agribusiness centre in the temperate zone. Because El Colegio de Michoacán is in Zamora, this is a city that I have known very well indeed for over forty years. Those of us who paid attention to these things know that none of these places were completely free of crime and violence in the past, but headless and dismembered bodies are now appearing on their streets with greater frequency as different fragments of earlier cartels fight amongst each other for local control in a situation in which no new organisation has become completely hegemonic, even if the big Jalisco New Generation Cartel and its Michoacán allies befitted greatly from state action focused on disarticulating the Caballeros Templarios cartel.

Cemeí argues that in contrast to this dismal panorama elsewhere in the state, in the four municipios of Tepalcatepec, Coalcomán, Chinicuila y Aquila it has become a challenge even to steal a car. The interview makes it clear that this is because vigilance is being maintained by armed local people, with the collaboration of police, and support from the public in terms of financial assistance and information about suspicious vehicles entering the zone and other perceived threats. This, Verdía asserts, has brought an end to the robberies and extortion that became part of their daily lives at the worst moments of the region’s recent history. In other words, although armed local self-defence has now become more low-key and clandestine, the autodefensas are still operating. The main regional bad guys once again seem to have withdrawn to neighbouring Colima, as they did after Cemeí Verdía originally revived Ostula’s communal police and set about creating a regional autodefensa force that brought mestizos and indigenous people together, although they did subsequently make several attempts on his life, aided and abetted by their remaining allies in municipal government and within some of the other indigenous communities in the region.

I have no means of knowing at present if any of the downsides of armed local self-defence and vigilante systems that I have previously written about are manifesting themselves again in this zone. But it seems probable, given what has happened here in the past and the condition of other parts of Michoacán, that this evolved autodefensa system does enjoy the broad base of local support and collaboration that Cemeí Verdía claims. Nor would it be surprising, in the light of the very unsatisfactory results of previous efforts to convert autodefensas into legalised extensions of the state security system, if an organisation that had achieved greater popular legitimacy and was willing to function in a low-key way in what is still a relatively marginalised zone, enjoyed the tacit consent of a state government that has so many other fronts on which it does not seem to be able to deliver what it promised.

This seems to include “development”. Despite the introduction of new programs, Mexico’s rural poverty statistics continue to be dismal, although thanks to the work of CONEVAL, the autonomous National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, they are far more reliable than they used to be and use sophisticated multidimensional measures. Anthropologists, especially anthropologists working in CIESAS (the Centre for Higher Studies and Research in Social Anthropology), played an important part in the development of CONEVAL’s agenda. In relative terms, the disadvantage of indigenous people remains a major national problem, and it is a major problem in Michoacán, where indigenous people are too small a minority for their welfare to be a political priority, and very often a disunited minority as well, but have a continuing history of activism. But indigenous people’s problems are no longer simply rural problems, but problems of life in the urban periphery, and problems for families that have sought solutions to their problems through domestic or international migration. As P’urhépecha indigenous intellectual and activist Bertha Dimas Huacuz points out in a recent article solving those problems cannot be seen simply as a matter of having “intercultural” policies, let alone a matter of state philanthropy.

In his interview Cemeí Verdía reminded listeners that he has always said that security comes first, because insecurity deepens poverty, and that if security could be achieved, development would come of its own accord. Sadly I doubt that this is true, and in many ways it contradicts what he has himself previously said about links between violence and the nature of contemporary capitalist interest in the resources within indigenous territories. But to the extent to which peace can be maintained in these municipalities, this is an opportunity for some serious rethinking of models of regional development that have tended to focus on tourism and mining in recent years, both advanced, to the extent to which they could be advanced, in ways that caused conflict with the surviving indigenous communities in the zone. Immediate challenges in terms of welfare are improved access to healthcare and education, especially higher education, although a national policy of confrontation and violent repression of school teachers unhappy with an imposed “educational reform” is scarcely helpful either. But that must be accompanied by a realistic approach to improving the incomes and livelihoods of the entire population, not schemes that concentrate returns to investment in the hands of a few (including the political cronies of business interests) and promote greater dispossession and marginalisation for the many. If that continues to happen, any unity that has now been achieved in the face of criminal threats in economically devastated rural areas will collapse again, and the bad guys will be back.