Relative calm ends on the Michoacán coast

As I explained in another post seven months ago, following the release from prison of Cemeí Verdía the regional self-defence forces led by the indigenous community of Ostula were able to offer greater protection to local people against the depredations of criminal groups. But remnant cells of the Caballeros Templarios cartel, led by people whose brutal  violence makes them truly worthy of Donald Trump’s “bad hombres” epithet, never disappeared from the scene entirely, as Cemeí Verdía warned in the interview that I reported then. Some took refuge in neighbouring Colima, a small and once-tranquil state that became a zone of violent conflict between competing cartels, which manifestly succeeded in penetrating the local political system. Other criminal elements adopted a lower profile, withdrawing to the mountainous region that rises up behind the narrow coastal plain in the region where Ostula and the other Nahua communities of the municipality of Aquila are located. The high sierras have long been involved in drug production and trafficking. In a book that I published with the Colegio de Michoacán in Spanish in 2004, I described the negative social and cultural impacts that entanglement in this business had on indigenous people and inter-ethnic relations even before the violence of cartel wars and generalised extortion and terror became the order of the day in the region, developments charted in my more recent book The New War Against the Poor.

On Sunday, 5th February, at 3 am, five communal police were forcibly removed from an inspection post that they were manning at the point where the road heading up to San Pedro Naranjestil, an indigenous village in which mestizo ranchers also succeeded in installing themselves in the early twentieth century, leads off from the main coastal highway. Cemeí Verdía and other autodefensa leaders from the municipios of Aquila and Coahuayana denounced this forced disappearance as an act perpetrated by members of the Marine Corps, whose soldiers form part of the federal security force that is supposed to guarantee security in the region. Human rights NGOs supporting the denunciation made a formal “urgent action” appeal in a press conference to both the federal and state governments to locate the kidnapped men. The inhabitants of Ostula, Aquila and Coahuayana have had many previous experiences of violent persecution by elements of the military, and there is abundant evidence from the past that elements of the federal security forces in this region have collaborated with its organised crime. There is a possible echo of the tragedy of the Ayotzinapa students here. But in an analysis of what happened published in the Grillonautas channel of You Tube, Jorge Vazquez Valencia, an autodefensa leader from Aguilillla, speculates that the armed men responsible might not have been real marines, but members of a Templarios cell using cloned military vehicles, which are certainly known to exist, attempting to re-establish themselves in the coast. What is certain already is that the victims were delivered into the hands of organised crime. Their captors have already demanded the removal of the inspection point, the dissolution of the municipal and communal police of Aquila, and the handing over of their arms. Otherwise they will kill the kidnapped communal police.

The state government’s initial reaction was to deny that it had any knowledge about the incident, although a formal denunciation had already been made through available justice system channels. Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether criminal groups are still benefiting from political protection in Michoacán, where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has consolidated its influence following the fragmentation of the Templarios, although Cemeí Verdía was clearly right to insist that the fragments remain menacing, and some of the newer criminal factions are actually the product of the catastrophic backstage deals made by former federal security commissioner Alfredo Castillo. The military have denied all responsibility, claiming there was no operation in this area at the time. But what is absolutely clear about these official public powers is that they are still incapable of providing security to citizens living in this region. Whether real or fake marines carried out the kidnapping of the five police, the “bad hombres” are visibly descending from the sierras again and trying to reestablish their control of the coast. Urgent action is definitely required, and it would be good if it was in unambiguous support of the region’s communal police for once.

Update: the captured men were released four days later after a negotiation, but an appeal for protective measures has been made to the Interamerican Human Rights Commission. The charge that they were handed over to the criminals by marines remains in place.