The CPGC-Casa Migration Field Study closed on a solemn note, one motivated by a moment of deep reflection. The gunshots of the auto-defensas and the Michoacan cartels battled in the background of our Quaker-inspired silence. The pleas of Central American migrants to bring aid reverberated in our over-saturated hearts. Still, we ended with hope that the coming months would bring engagement and action, and not simply the feeling that nothing can be done to mitigate the levels of violence Mexico currently endures.
With the murder toll of 2013 in Mexico at 17,000, I turned cold at the thought of what the coming years may bring for Mexico, for Mexico City, for the Central American migrants in route to the U.S. At the idea of the ever-expanding cartel influence shaping the country and running it ragged. And meanwhile my thoughts turned to my own country, which sends more and more guns and military to Mexico and then says, “Stay away,” and “Don’t go there.”
As the cartel violence in Michoacan started flaring up in the New Year, I stayed waiting for news of the cartel vs. civilian militia group violence to make the pages of international newspapers and television. After six years of the so-called “War on Drugs,” though, it takes more than some cartel scuffles to call the global media’s attention. This outbreak of violence is the first time since I’ve been in Mexico that I really feel that I’m living in a country at war, that the tenseness and closeness of the violence is actively rooting itself in my conscious. It is a national trauma actively in the making, one that is unlikely to find peace or resolution in the near future.
Nor is there anything simple about it. About taking sides, forming an opinion, articulating some kind of hope. The basic explanation is that the people of Michoacan are done letting the police and military protect the cartels. And so they rose up to rid themselves of the Templarios. When the police tried to stop them, they targeted the corrupt authorities and arrested them. When the federal forces came to make the civilians give up their weapons, they refused, denouncing the police’s collaboration and protection of the cartels and saying, “No way.” Complicating factors are the instability with which power is held and with which civilians can act on their own, non-cartel related interests. The Michoacan Family, once a part of the Zetas, were once elite trained paramilitary group which later turned its efforts to drug-trafficking and other illegal exports.
Similarly, “The Knights Templar, reportedly led by a man named Servando Gomez Martinez, aka “La Tuta”, emerged in 2010 after a split within a paramilitary defense group-turned-organised crime syndicate known as The Michoacan Family. The group participates in dozens of illicit activities from drug trafficking to illegal mining. The state has been gripped by armed conflict and a military presence ever since. Nearly 1,000 people were murdered in Michoacan in 2013.” (The Independent, 16 de enero, 2014)
It is this group the self-defense militias have converged to disband. In protest of the corruption and cartel involvement of local police forces, many citizens have received the self-defense militias favorably, going as far as to label them heroes, who are taking the protection of their communities into their own hands. One the ground this looks like a community-based military option, where police and cartel members are arrested and detained by self-defense groups who are just fed up.
Taking sides. I’ve never lived in a country at war with itself. I’ve never lived in a so-called “failing-state.” And so when I see citizens take up arms as a last resort, it’s hard not to have a little bit of hope that through local, civilian action things could get better in cartel-ridden areas. The amount of popular and activist support for this movement has been indicative of how much people are suffering under the current conditions. At the same time, the cartels are so powerful that it’s hard to tell if the auto-defensas can stand up not just to cartels such as the Templarios, but the whole range of competing cartels in the region:
“Some speculate whether the self-defense alliance in Michoacan has been infiltrated by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a rival of The Knights Templar.”
The questions of stability and rule of law are on our mind. So is the safety of our relatively unscathed capital city which has so much to do with all that is going around us and yet we’re in a dream-world bubble where you’re okay as long as you don’t leave.
Meanwhile, migrants are tangled into the middle of this power-struggle which stems back to militarization and economic injustice, bad governments and brutal inequality. If there is a lesson to be learned from the self-defense militias, it is that the way forward can only be made in numbers, with people shouting at the top of their lungs, “No More.” As a foreigner and a new-learner on this topic there is still a ton I don’t understand. But I see the people rising up and can only think that the U.S. has had a major hand in creating this situation of violence. It’s also time to step up and try to defend the lives of those put in the crossfire, not just looking at whose shooting the guns, but who put the guns in their hands, and what the steps toward peace might look like.