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LatinNews Daily Report - 26 July 2013

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Peña Nieto’s moment of truth in Tierra Caliente

Development: In the week to 26 July, there have been widespread gunfights and attacks in different parts of the Mexican state of Michoacán, as drug cartels, federal police and local self-defence militia vie for control of small towns and highways, particularly in the Tierra Caliente region. According to the daily Reforma, the death toll in the past week alone is at least 42.

Significance: If the capture of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the leader of the Los Zetas drug gang, was a notable security success for the new government led by President Enrique Peña Nieto, the flare-up of violence in Michoacán this week is a reminder of the federal government’s continuing inability to fill a power vacuum in certain parts of the country. Ironically, it was in Michoacán that Peña Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) sought to tackle the drug gangs by sending in the army six years ago, a policy that is widely considered to have failed. Six years later, in this state at least, government policy is still not working.

Key points:

  • Michoacán has all the ingredients of an intractable problem. It has many pockets of rural poverty, particularly in the Tierra Caliente lowlands region of 19 municipalities that the government says form the epicentre of the violence. This is the stronghold of the drug gang calling itself Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar). However another gang, Jalisco Nueva Generación, has been battling to gain control of the area. A third factor is the local self-defence militia groups that have sprung up in many villages. State politics are complicated by the fact that Governor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, of the federally-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), has been on sick leave since April. His temporary replacement, Jesus Reyna, has struggled to cope with the deteriorating security situation but insists that Michoacán is not “a failed state”. He has claimed that the violence evidences the fact that the drug gangs are feeling the pressure, a line supported by the federal government, which has described the latest attacks as a sign of the gangs’ “desperation”.
  • Local accounts paint a different picture. According to Tierra Caliente residents, the Knights Templar offered to ‘protect’ rural communities, in exchange for being allowed to get on with their drug trafficking business unmolested. According to José Manuel Mireles Valverde, a representative of the Tepalcatepec militia (formally known as Consejo de Autodefensa de Tepalcatepec), the Knights eventually failed to keep their word and began extorting payments from everyone in the community. José Reveles, a regional specialist, explained: “They made a list of how many kilos of lemon, meat, or avocados everyone produced, and of the floor space of their homes in square metres. Then they’d demand payment. That’s why people got fed up”.
  • It seems that Jalisco Nueva Generación in turn offered to protect people from the Knights Templar. The militias are sometimes genuine expressions of the communities, sometimes sucked into close alliances with one particular drug gang to fend off the other. The situation has become extreme, many say, because the state government simply disappeared from many municipalities, leaving a power vacuum.

Pointer: Michoacán is again emerging as a test case for federal and state government anti-crime policies. Ironically, it highlights the lack of intelligence work by the authorities, which President Peña Nieto says should be at the centre of national anti drugs policy. Former presidential candidates Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, whose father and son have been Michoacán governors, has stressed the point. “Talk to people in any town, and they’ll tell you that such and such is happening here, and that so-and-so lives behind that hill or over on that farm”, Cárdenas said, adding “If they tell you that, if they’ll tell the doctor, or the vet, or the neighbour, then certainly the authorities should know”.  How Mexican public opinion rates the government’s competence on security issues may turn on whether it can develop better intelligence in Michoacán.