What are state police doing in the Meseta P’urhépecha and why are they doing it?

On Wednesday 5 April, 2017, a large convoy a state police vehicles was dispatched to the indigenous community of Arantepacua, in the municipality of Nahuatzen in the central highlands of Michoacán, Mexico. Nahuatzen is a municipality in which more than 80% of the population live below the official poverty line. This part of the state is known as the Meseta P’urehépcha, the name of Michoacán’s largest ethnic group, often called ‘Tarascans’ in older anthropological literature, although the development of new ethnic movements led by indigenous intellectuals has now consigned that name for the people and their language to the past. It is a region of forests, although logging, much of it illegal and one of the activities included in the diversified criminal portfolios of the state’s drug mafias, has visibly reduced the density of woodland over the forty years that I have been visiting the region. It is also the most important region in Mexico for growing avocados, exported to the United States and Europe, so profitably that avocados came to be called ‘green gold’. Most of the profits from avocados go to big producers and the sector has been very important for laundering the money that flows from the drugs that Michoacán also exports to the United States and Europe. The modest participation of peasant growers in avocados has always been hindered by sanitary controls as well as the by land grabbing of more powerful, politically-connected, actors in a rural social landscape characterised by high levels of poverty.

This is the wider context of the agrarian conflicts that are endemic in the Meseta P’urhépecha, conflicts that pit village against village and peasant against peasant over claims to forests, land and water. It would be naive in the extreme to paint members of indigenous communities as wholly innocent bystanders in the violence that often accompanies these conflicts or imagine that communities do not at times attempt to capture resources from each other. Indigenous peasants steal their neighbours’ timber, for example, and adjudicating territorial boundary disputes that tend to become very bitter has always been a challenge for state authorities. On the other hand, it would be equally naive to ignore how these localised conflicts are entangled in wider networks of power relations. Local community bosses (caciques) always have patrons at higher political levels, and even before the rise of regional drug cartels, intra-communal as well as inter-communal factionalism was often the result of interference by tourism entrepreneurs and owners of illegal saw-mills who enjoy political protection. But in the twenty-first century, organised crime not only enjoyed the protection of municipal and state government authorities but became increasingly able to decide who those authorities should be. The federal commissioner sent in by President Peña Nieto with the ostensible purpose of dismantling the then dominant Knights Templar cartel, Alfredo Castillo, chose to solve the problem of Michoacán’s governability by suppressing the truly autonomous and popular local self-defence groups that had emerged to fight the cartels and negotiating backstage deals with the criminals who formed their own autodefensas, despite the fact that he must have known that some of them were former Templarios and that others had ties with the Jalisco New Generation cartel that had been muscling in on Knights Templar territory and now dominates the Pacific states of Western Mexico   This is the other piece of background that we need to keep in mind in thinking about what happened in Arantepacua last week.

The residents of Arantepacua, which has a total population of less than 3000, have for some years been involved in an agrarian conflict over some 500 hectares of land with the neighbouring community of Capácuaro, which has more than double the population of Arantepacua and falls under the jurisdiction of Uruapan, a much richer municipality administered from the second biggest city in the state. Both communities are mainly indigenous and although most people can speak Spanish as well, P’urhépcha is still used by their inhabitants. After state police detained 38 comuneros from Arantepacua on Tuesday April 4, members of the community set up barricades on the road to Nahuatzen and detained some vehicles. The ostensible purpose of the large police detachment dispatched to the community next day was to recover 20 vehicles that the comuneros had seized. Although the state government claimed that most of the police were not armed with firearms, it included a squad of heavily armed riot police. One of the problems of repressing the poor in the age of the cell phone is that they make videos of what happens to them that are almost instantly defused through social networks. Even taking the official version as true on the issue of police equipment for the operation, the ‘reaction group’ of armed officers that the Secretary of Public Security agreed were present looked pretty aggressive and scary to me.

The first official version was that the police had been met by heavy weapons fire on arrival, resulting in injuries to seven officers, three of whom were seriously wounded (police causalities subsequently became nine, none fatal). Juan Bernardo Corona, head of the Secretariat of Public Security (SPP), even went so far as to say that it was not possible to rule out the presence of “agents external to the community”, given the ubiquitous presence of organised crime in the area. He announced that one comunero had been killed in the confrontation, and 10 had been detained (to add to the 38 detained earlier). In a later press conference, the same official admitted that there were three comuneros dead, and another who had been taken to hospital. The latter died of his wounds. One of the victims was a 15 year old school student. As well as admitting that the higher toll of casualties claimed by community spokespersons was correct, Mr. Corona also described the “aggression” of the comuneros against the police in a different way, saying that around 250 comuneros had “without any motive” initiated their attack using wooden sticks, stones, machetes and rockets (which would be kind of fireworks fired before mass and during religious festivals).

The official version had to change because the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) had made an investigation immediately upon learning of the incident and publicly rejected the state government account of the number of dead and sent its own investigators to the village to pursue further enquiries.  It also responded to complaints from the families of the 38 men detained prior to the operation that they had not been permitted contact with their relatives, by ordering measures of protection and offering to provide indigenous detainees with an interpreter if necessary, and opened a second file on the detentions made during the police raid on the village.

The rapid intervention of the CNDH put the state government under pressure, though at the time of writing this we are still waiting for a response from the governor, Silvano Aureoles. But the SPP stuck to its position of blaming the comuneros for the violence. Two things make it difficult to accept this line.

The first is that what has just happened in Arantepacua has a recent, but less widely reported precedent. Caltzontzin is a p’urhépecha community in the jurisdiction of Uruapan that received its present land after its original territory was engulfed in volcanic ash following the eruption of the Paricutín volcano in 1943. Paricutín and the ruined village that was destroyed in its birth as a new volcano are one of the region’s main tourist attractions, but Caltzontzin’s economy received an important boost from the community’s establishing an annual avocado festival, which brought in income that could be reinvested in farming. The municipal government decided that the land where the festival was sited would be better used  for a health clinic, which it began to build without consulting the community, breaking a previous agreement to negotiate. The clinic was built, despite resistance, but further plans to build administrative offices on the site proved a step too far. Since the offices related to state government programs, the comuneros appealed to Silvano Aureoles and demanded a review of the documents that established their rights to the territory that they now occupied. The state government did not respond to this request, so in protest they blocked not only the road but also the railway line, which is federal government property. This brought a combined operation by, local reports claimed, more than a thousand state and federal police down on their heads. The total population of the town of Caltzontzin is 5,136, of whom a little less than 40% identify themselves as indigenous, and it is less poor than Arantepacua. It is unlikely that the whole community was solidly behind militant action in defence of the disputed land. This did not, however, restrain the security forces from responding to its defiance of government plans by firing tear gas grenades at houses from helicopters and then invading the town, grabbing people from the street and from their homes. Teachers managed to restrain heavily armed riot police trying to burst into a kindergarten, and nobody died, although some people were wounded. 13 of the 17 people arrested remain in prison. That the state government took an “iron fist'” approach to this dispute seems to tell us something.

In the case of Arantepacua, we now have many illuminating eye-witness accounts of what happened from those who suffered in the police invasion. One is long interview with Xóchitl Madrigal, mother of one of the detainees and husband of another, secured by the redoubtable independent journalist Carmen Aristegui, collaborating with Laura Castellanos, a seasoned reporter on Michoacán who won the National Prize for Journalism in 2015 for her reporting on the killings by federal police in Apatzingán that were one of the darkest of the many dark episodes of Alfredo Castillo’s tenure as federal Special Commissioner. Xóchtil’s son is a teacher at the Intercultural Indigenous University, and her husband, like many other men in the village, a carpenter making the rustic wooden furniture for which the Meseta villages are renowned. Her story is of police smashing their way into her house, treating those inside with considerable brutality,  stealing 70,000 pesos in cash, her cell phone, and her son’s laptop computer before setting about trashing her husband’s vehicle. But one of the most interesting things that she said was that she “would never trust the police again”, which tends to suggest that we are not hearing from a member of a family of desperados. In fact, it is precisely this kind of experience of the state throughout Michoacán that led a lot of citizens to conclude that they would be better off accepting the “protection'”of the narcos as the lesser of two evils, and when that evil proved unbearable, made honest citizens turn to organising their own armed self-defence, as most famously happened in the P’urhépecha town of Cherán.

But as another comunero put it, how could people in places like Arantepacua afford guns and ammunition when they’re challenged just to earn enough to eat? Community spokesperson Gustavo Jiménez said that 60% of the properties in the community had been invaded by the police, obliging their residents to flee into the hills (as they used to do during the revolution and Cristero rebellion). The searches, without warrant, must be considered illegal even before we consider the illegality of theft and wanton destruction of property.  The raid took place, without warning, during negotiations between a commission that the community had sent to Morelia and the sub-secretary and chief-of-staff of the state government. Mr. Jiménez received news that the 70 vehicle convoy was approaching his village during the meeting, but the officials made light of it. He could hardly have imagined the kind of violence that would follow, and completely rejected the charges of possession of arms that were made in justification of the 10 new detentions. False charges of possession of weapons are frequently made against those who offend the state government of Michoacán.

The dead included Xóchtil Madrigal’s brother in law, carpenter Francisco Jiménez Alexandre, shot several times in the chest, Carlos Jiménez Crisóstomo, a 25 years old nurse shot dead at the door of his house, a 15 year old schoolboy, Luis Gustavo Hernández, and 40 years old Santiago Crisanto Luna, the victim who died of his wounds in hospital. This does not exactly look like a group of people involved in organised crime who would have attacked an intimidatingly large convoy of police. As for the alleged lack of motive for residents to respond to the police with sticks, stones and rockets, the community version of events, a violent police invasion of streets and houses in which officers beat everyone they could lay hands on and had shot people, hardly leaves much room for doubt. Once again, the fact that sone residents took videos of what was happening that allow us to hear what people were saying supports the community version.

The ages of the detainees range from another 15 years old, Cristóbal Pascual Morales, to 78 years old Agustín Coenete Policarpio. Mrs Madrigal’s father is a rural teacher. It does appear that four of those taken prisoner were not community members, and were captured outside the village, but the targeting of the school and university teachers looks as if it may have been a deliberate political act given the leadership roles such figures tend to play. Mrs Madrigal’s son is a mechanical engineer with a Masters in industrial design who teaches classes in maths, statistics and design applications in computing. It is somewhat ironic that the police should destroy this family’s vehicle on a mission justified by the need to recover vehicles seized by community members in attempt to pressure the state government. But perhaps that was the intended message. It appears that the CNDH has every reason to be concerned about the conditions under which the detainees are being held and the difficulties that their relatives have had in communicating with them. Mexico is, after all, a country repeatedly condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Commission for its routine use of torture to extract false confessions. Even if they are not on the payroll of organised crime, thieves and extortioners, police are generally too badly trained to win the trust of citizens in poor rural communities in which their superiors guarantee them high levels of impunity whatever they do.

It seems that the primary objective of the Aureoles administration is to enforce ‘governability’ by whatever means are expedient. This may extend to finding it expedient  to allow organised crime a continuing space in the life of the state provided that it acts with due discretion. As Margarita Warnholtz Locht, “La Tiaculia”, an activist trained in anthropology at the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), comments on the latest acts of state repression in the Meseta P’urhépecha, the excessive use of force against vulnerable citizens is becoming the norm in Michoacán, whereas drug traffickers can still operate with relative impunity, while a leading autodefensa leader who tried to liberate Michoacán’s communities from organised crime, Dr. José Manuel Mireles, is left to rot in prison. Governor Aureoles has now abolished the state government’s Secretariat of Indigenous Affairs. It is true that most Michoacanos now see themselves as mestizos rather than indigenous people, but as the Meseta P’urépecha demonstrates, it can hardly be argued that there was no work for this department of government to do with the 15% who continue to have indigenous identities. It is simply that it is much easier to repress relatively powerless people than to seek socially just solutions to difficult problems. Especially when there are powerful economic interests pressing for other options.