A report about a small Mexican town which defied powerful criminal groups offers a close-up portrait of the methods of the Familia Michoacana and Caballeros Templarios gangs, who are moving into businesses like mining, logging, and water extraction.
The article, which appeared in a recent edition of Proceso, reports from Cheran, southern Mexico, where the crime-weary residents took up arms to chase out criminals linked the Familia Michoacana and the Caballeros Templarios last year. The response of the gangs has been brutal -- the authors report that 15 locals have since been murdered and another five have disappeared -- but the townspeople have kept control of their municipality, despite what Proceso calls a lack of support from the state and federal governments.
The piece demonstrates how far criminal groups in Michoacan have expanded beyond drug trafficking and enmeshed themselves in the broader economy. The Caballeros and the Familia remain important drug traffickers, but they are also active players in logging, mining, water extraction, and everyday commerce. The fact that they also often use extortion to put the squeeze on the legal actors in each economic sector increases the harm inflicted on (and resentment flowing from) the general population.
The Familia Michoacana first rose to prominence in 2006, when they tossed several severed heads onto the dancefloor of a nightclub in Apatzingan, a city in Michoacan, as a warning to their enemies in the Milenio Cartel. They grew into one of the most fearsome and notorious gangs in Mexico, proving themselves capable of fighting off the Zetas, and at one point were described by the federal government as the most dangerous criminal group in the country.
However, years of government pressure and internal divisions have seriously weakened the group. Following the death of leader Nazario Moreno in a 2010 firefight, a portion of the Familia defected to form the Caballeros Templarios, which operates in the same region and has been locked into a battle with what remains of the Familia ever since.
What follows is InSight Crime's translation of extracts from the Proceso piece:
The armed community police move further into the bare, devastated mountain. One group is already at the peak, protecting the rest. Any incursion into the forest is dangerous at this point. It’s obvious from the gutted foothills, with barely a last phalanx of burned trunks still clinging to the ground. In these areas, devoid of the tall, thick, thousand-year-old trees that blocked out the sun, shadows mark the ground today.
“As they advance they light fires, they chop down trees, they come to scare people, sowing terror so that the people give up and abandon the land. They want to take over the entire region, we hear that they want to plant avocado and that we should get used to it,” says the head of the group of community volunteers that functions as a local police force in this independent town, as we travel around San Miguel mountain, to the north.
The massacre of the trees is evident a kilometer from the outskirts of the town; that’s as far as the tree-cutters go. They work under a man known as "El Guero," from Rancho Rio Seco, who controls part of the Meseta Purepecha for the Caballeros Templarios. Some media outlets have said his real name is Cuitlahuac Hernandez.
Cheran has received media attention since April 15, 2011, when it rose up in defense of its forests. But the struggle goes far beyond that. They are gambling on stopping the expansion of the business model that drug trafficking groups have used throughout Michoacan: as they arrive at each new community, they entrench themselves in the mayor’s office, where they direct personnel, control trade and subjugate the vendors, they establish a “derecho de piso” extortion payment for all productive activities, extend the sale, traffic, production, and consumption of drugs, sponsor illegal activities, and take over the highways, the forests, the productive lands, the mineral resources and even the water.
Cheran is surrounded by communities where this is already happening. Huitzaco, for example, is a town inhabited by dozens of productive mine “owners” who remain poor because they are simply frontmen. In San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro the stall owners in the market have begun to be harassed for extortion payments. Armed men visit the orchards of the avocado growers in Uruapan, producers of the world-famous “green gold,” obligating them to become partners and sell the crops to them.
For Total Control
Cheran was on the same path until it decided to fight, without receiving any assistance from the state or the federal government thus far.
“Here the climate, which is cold, doesn’t allow the land to produce avocado; that’s not why they want it. But our land is good for growing nice marijuana plants, like there are in other nearby communities, or for installing narco-labs in the more distant zones, like the ones that they have found in El Cerecito. The sand mines and gravel quarries are tempting. Our forests are useful for producing lumber. What they want is more money. And they even wanted to charge the community for the water that we take from the well,” explains one of the community members who was among those who initiated the movement, and preferred to remain anonymous.
Last April, she and a group of other women went up the mountain, accompanied by their small children, to try to start a dialogue with the men who brought earth-movers to strip the mountain by night, and by day walked around among the uprooted trunks. Without telling their husbands, they approached the men and asked, please, respect the trees that are hundreds of years old around the wells, because you are going to leave the community thirsty. But they were treated like “nosy broads” and driven off at gunpoint.
Now angered, at dawn on the 15th of the month they stopped the first logging trucks from passing through the community, and when the tree-cutters responded with gunfire, the people came out to defend themselves. Since then, the Cheran residents haven’t let down their guard: the town lives behind trenches lined with sandbags, has installed its own police force, and every resident has turned into a patrolman.
On October 14, 2010, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office announced the capture of Javier Lopez Medina, financial operator of the Familia Michoacana and alleged administrator of the funds coming from extortion payments, payments from kidnappings, as well as the sale of drugs and illegal exportation to China of 1.1 million tons of iron ore, valued at $42 million.
“The theft of minerals in this area has been on the rise in recent years, thanks to the zone being controlled by this criminal organization. Ignacio Javier Lopez Medina maintained commercial relations with important international businesses established in Mexico, dedicated to the export of iron ore to China,” the agency said.
Image, above, shows Cheran townspeople at a memorial for one of the victims of clashes with gangs.