It has been building up for several months now, both the phenomenon and my wanting to write about it.
The events themselves seem almost incredible, like a movie script or novel: ordinary average people pitted against forces of evil who, like video game role-playing teens have given themselves the ridiculous name of the Knights Templar, and who terrorize them and their families. All within a hilly, tropical landscape of green pastures and lime, mango and avocado groves. The people join together and like Les Miz (sort of) fight back, using any weapons they have.
Then the government steps in.
The story is, however, very real — and raises a significant dilemma: what to do when the state fails in its basic responsibilities to its citizens? Replace it, which means it will never become accountable, or what?
We are talking about Mexico, here, a coastal region in the state of Michoacan called the Tierra Caliente. The roots of its problems go way back, according to a man who has become both a spokesperson and a leader of these self-defence groups. As Dr. Juan Manuel Mireles describes in a Red de Noticias video, 12 years ago, a break-away gang from the notorious narco-traffickers La Familia showed up in his town, Tepalcatepec, and said they would conduct their illegal business but leave the townsfolk alone. So people there said, “esta bien,” he relates, until new twists in the political economy of drug production and marketing took place.
After a lot of inter-necine conflict, many of the original Knights were either killed or had left; new leaders emerged and apparently unable to make as much money as they liked from marijuana and meth, decided to get into the extortion racket as well. Cattle ranchers, says Dr. Mireles, had to pay 1000 pesos per head sold, butchers 10 pesos per kilo of meat and tortilla vendors, 4 pesos per kilo. Lime growers were taxed on acreage, tonnes harvested and crates packed, their workers on their wages and bus fares. And so on. People had to fork over fees for almost anything and everything, including 20 pesos per child going to school.
Those who did not pay were killed. Last April, ten lime pickers — the region is a noted lime exporting area — who resisted the Knights were slaughtered, their bodies dumped on the side of a road.
Women, however, were a major target, and rape a common occurrence. One of the most horrendous details in the long list of facts Dr. Mireles marshals to explain the origins of the citizen militias, was the raping of 11 and 12 -year-old school girls, 14 in one month alone.
By quietly forming their resistance movement in Tepalcatepec, he says, the autodefence group managed to arrest 15 criminals. They were handed over to the local army HQ, and then brought to the Public Ministry office in Apaztingan. “By 12 midnight,” he says, “they were all free again.”
This only confirmed what many people already believed, that the police and judicial services were in cahoots with an extremely violent organization that had been doing as it pleased for over a decade.
It is at this point in the story where Dr. Mireles is less clear about just how exactly the militias got rid of their tormentors. He says that the groups took a page from the strategy, as he calls it, of local Purepecha indigenous “and in three weeks, we cleaned up our town.” I’m thinking they probably killed a number of drug dealers in armed confrontations but for obvious reasons don’t want to say so in public, and are scaring away others during their 24-hour patrols.
As Javier Pimentel a butcher in Coalcoman, put it, the military may be trained and armed, “but here, the locals, the farmers, the workers, we are doing the job.” There are now scores of citizen defence groups throughout Michoacan and, in the neighbouring state of Guerrero, an all-female one with 100 members.
So we are now seeing the emergence of a big international news story. Media like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Guardian have been writing about the arrival of federal troops in the Tierra Caliente, while Mexican media print the declarations of government security officials, who want “the locals, the farmers, the workers” to put down their arms.
Every autodefence member interviewed, however, reveals the logic of not doing so: “If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” one leader told the Associated Press.
So we are left with the original dilemma: Communities feeling forced to take on policing activities themselves, despite the danger.
A state incapable/unwilling to root out criminals, even admitting as Deputy Interior Minister Eduardo Sanchez has to the Washington Post: “The Mexican army does not have powers under the constitution to pursue criminals, unless they are caught in flagrante or a warrant is issued by a judge.”
And making everything even more complicated, a push-back from the cartels setting up faux autodefence groups, or potentially, the entry of new criminal actors onto the scene to take over from the harried Knights.
I have little doubt that any fair-minded person is applauding the courage and initiative of the citizen militias, while deploring the massive flaws within the Mexican state and its security apparatus. By any standard, the people of rural Michoacan deserved far, far better than their elected authorities have ever been willing to give them. Like any of us, I suppose, and in the absence of any other solution, they just decided to rid their lives of the gnawing cancer of violence meted out by the strong against the weak. Their struggle, moreover, reinforces our most fundamental sense of justice, not unlike the traditional Hollywood movie trope of the terribly sinned-against loner exacting revenge in a blaze of bullets and swelling music.
This may make for a thrilling moment or two in the cinema, but in real life, there is something wrong with this picture. Government has a duty and a mandate to protect its citizens – among other things. And citizens have the right to demand their government do so. They have the right to vote in another if they don’t get what they want.
Otherwise, what’s the point? What does a future where average people have to come up with their own security solutions imply?
We’re not talking about water, or schools, here. The ball is in the court of Mexico’s feckless young president Enrique Peña Nieto now, and after giving all those people 100-peso pre-paid gift cards to vote for him, he’d better step up. Sadly, however, it’s pretty difficult to imagine him doing so — or to see how this will all end anything but badly.
One may certainly sympathize with the people of the Tierra Caliente, and recognize they had no other choice. Their courage only illuminates the lack of it among their elected leaders, and the fearful path down which they are leading their country if they don’t seriously embrace a dramatically more effective democratic provision of public justice.
Otherwise, the movie this conundrum will perhaps more clearly resemble is Aliens vs. Predator– particularly the final scene in which a creature with Predator-like features emerges from the chest of the last dead Predator.