May 19, 2013
When former Mexican President Felipe Calderon escalated the so-called drug war after taking office in late 2006, he chose his home state of Michoacan as the testing ground of the Mexican army’s central role in the government’s strategy. Now, more than six years and thousands of deaths later, Michoacan is steeped in violence, immersed in multiple crises and beset by charges of a virtual melt-down of government authority.
Like Calderon before him, current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, overseeing the first Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential administration in 12 years, is weighing decisions on Michoacan that will impact not only the native land of many U.S. immigrants but also likely reflect, shape and re-define his administration’s broader national policies in the next five-and-a-half years.
A simmering political crisis, marked by April’s sudden departure of PRI Governor Fausto Vallejo and at least his temporary replacement by Jesus Reyna, took another twist last week when senators representing the conservative National Action Party (PAN) announced they would seek legislative action to “disappear” state powers, i.e. forcibly sack the governor in Michoacan, as permitted by the Mexican Constitution.
Among the PAN senators pushing the resolution was Felipe Calderon’s sister, Maria Luisa Calderon, who ran unsuccessfully against Vallejo for the governorship in the controversial 2011 election.
Given the PRI’s power in the Mexican Congress, the dissolution of state powers is highly unlikely but the parliamentary rhetoric served to recast national attention on the Michoacan crisis. Another PAN senator, Jorge Luis Preciado Rodriguez, asserted that state officials were “overwhelmed” by delinquency and that remedies might include putting the military in charge of security in the manner of Ciudad Juarez a few years back.
In fact, a quasi-militarization of state security was well underway last week when interim Governor Jesus Reyna appointed General Alberto Reyes Vaca as the new man in charge of state security. In turn, General Reyes named three army colonels as his close collaborators.
The announcement of Reyes’ appointment was quickly followed by a visit by General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s new defense secretary. In a meeting with the governor and other high-ranking state officials, General Cienfuegos said President Pena Nieto assured the support of the armed forces for unspecified “solid and cohesive actions” aimed at protecting the population while delivering “certainty” and “tranquility.”
Earlier insisting that the Pena Nieto administration would soon take action in Michoacan, Interior Under Secretary Luis Enrique Miranda Nava denied that a lack of “governance” shrouds the embattled state.
Although criminality and violence have long been a constant in Michoacan, recent developments in the Tierra Caliente region have pushed the situation to the brink.
Since the beginning of the month, violent confrontations, food and supply blockades, hangings, and armed take-overs of some local municipal governments have characterized the Tierra Caliente, where so-called self-defense groups now operate. Last week, 18 municipal policemen in the town of Coalcoman whom locals accused of collaborating with organized crime were nearly lynched before they were rescued by Mexican soldiers.
Bordering the state of Guerrero, the Tierra Caliente is the focus of violent disputes between the Knights Templar and Jalisco New Generation cartels, the latter of which is alleged to have armed some of the self-defense groups.
In messages recently circulated on the Internet, residents of Tepalcatepec, Buena Vista and La Ruana denounced a “terrorist group,” specifically the Knights Templar, for subjecting the local population to blockades of vital supplies and burning lime packing houses. Gravely wounded or sick people perished because road blockades prevented patients from receiving medical treatment, according to Tierra Caliente residents. Government officials, the writers added, were in cahoots with the Knights Templar organization.
Almost like a real-life soap opera, the mayhem is fast turning into a spectacle on YouTube and other social media.
On the Internet channel, a series of recent videos variously featured Hipolito Mora, leader of the La Ruana self-defense group, Knights Templar leaders Servando “La Tuta” Gomez and Dionisio “El Tio” Loya Plancarte and a masked, anonymous “businessman” railing against the Knights Templar. In one installment, “El Tio” proposed a “pact of peace and civility” with Mora in order to avoid “more deaths of innocents,” but challenged the self-defense leader to a duel if the dialogue did not bear fruit.
In response, Mora told an interviewer that he had no problem personally with “El Tio,” but called on the Knights Templar to leave the population alone. The self-defense movement, Mora said, consisted of “poor people.”
The Tierra Caliente firestorm is now emerging as a public issue in the United States, where millions of immigrants and their descendants with ties to Michoacan reside. Members of the Michoacan diaspora are appealing on President Obama, the United Nations, the Pope,and international public opinion to heed the drama unfolding in the Mexican state.
In an interview with Frontera NorteSur, Jose Sandoval, a spokesperson for the new U.S.-based movement called Michoacan for Peace, said Tierra Caliente locals had reached the breaking point and were arming themselves to defend against the Knights Templar.
“There’s no work and the (Knights Templar) have the people threatened,” Sandoval said. “Now people are saying, ‘I am going to defend myself.’”
Sandoval contended that the underworld group even charges lime industry workers, who make only 200 pesos a day, a “protection” fee of 50 pesos and assesses a 20 peso charge for each local school child. Tens of thousands of people in several municipalities are impacted by the violence and extortions, he said.
Last week, Michoacan for Peace organized protests at Mexican consulates in Los Angeles and San Jose, Sandoval said. In the coming days, the group plans more protests in the California cities of Fresno, Sacramento and San Jose, as well as a caravan to the White House and the United Nations in New York, he said.
According to the activist, Tierra Caliente residents fear the Mexican army will attempt to disarm the self-defense groups, which reject laying down their arms. A solution to the problem will come, Sandoval said, when the Knights Templar pulls back. “We don’t want any of our people or any of their people dead,” Sandoval added.
Michoacan’s public security crisis is not the only one riveting the state. A teachers’ movement against the new federal education law continued into May, with Michoacan educators participating in a national protest encampment in Mexico City, while education students at rural colleges wound down a round of militant protests for 1,200 guaranteed job slots and against the federal education reform.
In recent weeks, the students upped the ante by blockading and threatening to burn a Televisa affiliate in the state capital of Morelia, seizing scores of buses and commercial trucks and holding six policemen hostage for several days. The state government could pursue criminal charges against the students.
Simultaneous upheavals, for different reasons, had all of Michoacan’s political and social actors-left, right and center- speaking out about the future of the state.
PRD Senator Raul Moron Orozco said the current circumstances require the intervention of all three levels of government working in unison with the larger society for economic development, social stability, governance, social peace, and the improvement of the educational system.
Legendary politician Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a former Michoacan governor and co-founder of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), blamed the contemporary state of affairs on the PAN presidential administrations of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon.
Currently serving as the international liaison for Mexico City’s PRD administration, Cardenas contended that the two ex-presidents treated delinquency in Michoacan as an isolated phenomenon unconnected to issues of poverty and education.
On the question of dissolving the PRI-led state government, Cardenas was not supportive.
“I don’t think such a measure would resolve the problem,” he said. “It seems to me there should be more development programs and as always an efficient way of combating delinquency.”
In an unusual letter, Michoacan’s five Roman Catholic bishops demanded that interim Governor Jesus Reyna restore order and social peace.
“There is a permanent feeling of defenseless and desperation, plus anger and fear because of the complicity, forced or voluntary, of some authorities with organized crime,” the bishops wrote. “ All of us can attest to these facts, for which nothing can be done, so as to avoid reprisals and not expose one’s own life…there is a generalized perception of the lack of effectiveness of the federal, state and local authorities in guaranteeing safety, order and the right to free transit…”
The letter was signed by Bishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia and his colleagues from four other dioceses.
Michoacan’s original peoples are likewise taking decisive actions and demanding changes. Dozens of communities in the Purepecha highlands have essentially re-taken control of their own security from the Mexican state, setting up community police forces and in some cases expelling local officials.
In a press conference, Abundio Marcos Prado, leader of the Purepecha Nation, criticized the absence of state legal reforms in indigenous rights as well as neglect of the educational system.
While disassociating his organization from the more radical actions of the education students, Prado emphasized that indigenous communities still support the movement of their sons and daughters and are willing to lay down their lives to defend them.
Overall, indigenous peoples, detect a “worrisome disinterest of the state government and the pretension of keeping indigenous peoples forgotten and marginalized,” Prado said.
Additional sources: El Sur/Agencia Reforma, May 19, 2013. El Universal, May 16, 18 and 19, 2013. Articles by Dalia Martinez. La Jornada, May 16, 17 and 19, 2013. Articles by Ernesto Martinez, Emir Olivares, Notimex, and editorial staff. La Jornada (Michoacan edition), May 15, 16 and 19, 2013. Articles by Zayin Daleth Villavicencio, Carlos F. Marquez and Enfoque Noticias. Proceso/Apro, May 14, 15 and 17, 2013. El Diario de Juarez, May 2, 15 and 16, 2013.
Articles by Agencia Reforma, Milenio, El Universal and La Jornada.
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