The attacks on Mexican security forces by armed men across the Pacific Coast state of Michoacan in the past week have killed dozens of people and mocked the federal government’s efforts to forge peace in the troubled region.

Gunmen have ambushed security forces in a handful of places, killing a top ranking navy officer and at least eight federal police officers, and wounding a score more. They have massacred members of local volunteer police, executed residents of rural villages and blockaded key highways. New militias, calling themselves community police or self-defense forces, have formed to defend a growing number of towns and villages from the armed bands.

On July 24, Mexican officials ordered federal police and troops to re-deploy to the conflict areas near the coast. The following day, acting Michoacan Governor Jesus Reyna placed state police on alert in expectation of further attacks. 

Other federal security officials describe the bloody uptick as a sign of the gangs’ desperation in the face of the military deployment and the proliferation of the self-defense militias. Mexican media reports, meanwhile, have couched the violence as part of an ongoing battle between Michoacan’s homegrown Knights Templar criminal gang and rivals from neighboring Jalisco state and elsewhere.

Following the assaults, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed once again that the federal government would bring peace to the state, where the eruption of violence seven years ago sparked the military led offensive against Mexico’s criminal gangs that continues unabated.

“Michoacan has and will have the government’s full support to assure the rule of law in each of its regions,” Peña Nieto told reporters on the presidential plane returning from a graduation ceremony at Mexico’s naval academy. “Ours is an action obviously to contain the presence of organized crime groups, to re-establish territorial control in Michoacan.”

However, the spike in violence has quickly soured the praise heaped on Peña Nieto for the July 15 arrest of the leader of the fearsome Zetas gang, Miguel Angel Treviño, alias “Z40,” who was captured by naval Special Forces not far below the South Texas border.

InSight Crime Analysis

The recent violence has been the worst since mid-May, when clashes between self-defense groups and gangland gunmen in three towns forced Peña Nieto to dispatch as many as 7,000 soldiers and federal police to the state’s so-called “hot country” (Tierra Caliente) coastal lowlands to restore order.

Things did indeed calm quickly in May, spurring Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong to declare the state pacified. But Osorio spoke far too soon.

The armed groups in Michoacan now seem to be employing guerrilla warfare tactics, dissolving into the local populations or remote bases when faced with overwhelming federal forces, then striking when the opportunity arises.

The Knights Templar are almost certainly behind the ambushes and other attacks. But at least three criminal syndicates operate in Michoacan, which produces significant quantities of marijuana and methamphetamine, and is an important transit point for South American cocaine.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime’s Knights Templar profile

In addition to the Templars and the organization that spawned them, La Familia Michoacana, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) also have tentacles in Michoacan. The Zetas, which were dislodged from the state by La Familia in 2006, have reportedly been trying to return as well.

The attacks on police have come on the coastal highways near the port of Lazaro Cardenas, through which meth precursor chemicals are imported, and which the Templars reportedly control. But the massacre of militiamen last weekend took place on the steps of city hall in Los Reyes, a municipality in the highlands near the Jalisco border.

Analysts point out that much of the violence has been focused along the border with Jalisco, where the CJNG, based in Guadalajara, has allied with bands loyal to jailed La Familia underboss Jose de Jesus Mendez.

Nicknamed “El Chango” (the Monkey), Mendez was arrested two years ago following the reported killing by federal police of La Familia founder and kingpin Nazario “The Craziest One” Moreno.

In a post-arrest videotaped interrogation by federal police, Mendez said he had been betrayed by other Moreno lieutenants within La Familia, from which the Knights Templar had emerged a few months earlier. Another Moreno underling, former school teacher Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, is now considered the boss of the Knights Templar.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime’s “La Tuta” profile

Though both profess to act in the interests of Michoacan’s beleaguered citizens, the Templars and La Familia both earn money through extortion, kidnapping and collecting transit tolls from other gangs. La Familia has largely been dislodged from Michoacan, but is strong in the neighboring states of Guerrero and Mexico, including in the teeming working class suburbs surrounding Mexico City.

Local authorities and the Templars have accused the region’s self-defense militias of being in the pay of the CJNG, but in interviews in late May, leaders told Insight Crime that they had no ties to the Jalisco gangsters or any other crime group. The volunteer peacekeepers, many of whom carry assault weapons, instead have been armed by local business people fed up with paying extortion fees to the Templars, said Rafael Garcia, mayor of the timber and mining center of Coalcoman, one of the militia controlled towns. “You can call it a people’s cartel,” Garcia said of the town’s self-defense force.

Michoacan self defense map

Officials portray the current violence as a criminal problem, but the Templars and La Familia, which both strongly emphasize their Michoacan roots and preach a quasi-religious social philosophy, have also posed more of a political threat to the government. The state’s people have an independent streak which in the past has spawned social movements hostile to whoever was in control of the central government.

The community self-defense forces, though they have praised the army’s presence in the state, could further complicate things. Amid such chaos and social turmoil, how far is the leap between endemic insecurity and insurrection?

This is not the first time Michoacan has found itself at the center of drug war violence and the debate on security policy. Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderon, kicked off the campaign against Mexico’s gangsters by dispatching the troops to Michoacan soon after taking office in December 2006. Like officials have now, Calderon and his aides also claimed quick victories only to find themselves mocked by events.

“Things calmed down for a while and then the gangsters started reclaiming territory little by little,” a security analyst in the Michoacan capital, Morelia, told Insight Crime of those early days in the hyper violence that has killed more than 70,000 across Mexico.

In his comments to reporters Thursday, Peña Nieto repeated a plea for his government’s security strategy to be given a year to produce results.

The clock is ticking. So is Michoacan.

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