Mexican authorities say that three different groups are currently fighting over Michoacan -- this could mean the state will see a lengthy, destabilizing conflict in which no group is able to vanquish the others.
According to the state’s Department of Public Security (SSP, for its initials in Spanish), the three gangs seeking to control the prized Pacific region are the Familia Michoacana, their spin-off the Caballeros Templarios, and the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG, for its initials in Spanish). Fighting between these groups was blamed for an outbreak of killings earlier this month, including the discovery of seven bodies, with signs of torture, in Lazaro Cardenas.
Each of these groups has a long history in Michoacan: the Familia had established itself as the dominant gang by 2006, after pushing out the Milenio Cartel with the help of the Zetas. After years of harassment from both criminal and governmental adversaries, a gravely diminished Familia saw one of its longtime commanders, Servando Gomez, split off to form the Caballeros Templarios in early 2011.
The CJNG, also one of Mexico’s newer gangs, was formed following the July 2010 death of Sinaloa Cartel honcho Ignacio Coronel (who was killed in a gunfight with federal forces). It is often described as a subsidiary of the Sinaloa Cartel, though many reports say the group is composed of former Milenio Cartel figures.
Michoacan is one of the states most notorious for organized crime, due both to gruesome acts, like the Familia’s display of human heads in an Uruapan nightclub in 2006, and for the group’s deep integration into society, described in detail by a 2010 piece in the New Yorker.
However, despite these manifestations of the power of criminal groups, Michoacan is not one of Mexico’s most violent states. The murder rate in 2011, when 773 people were killed, was a mere 18 per 100,000 residents, just below Mexico’s national rate, and far below neighboring Guerrero, where the murder rate was over 60. Moreover, 2011 was an outlier in terms of the number of killings in Michoacan; the figure in 2010 was just 661, and the number of murders had surpassed 600 only twice in the previous 10 years. In the first three months of 2012, the state witnessed 179 murders, on pace for a relatively tame annual total of 716.
On the one hand, this is encouraging, because Michoacan has not undergone the violent descent suffered by many other states, despite the presence of many of the same elements that drive the bloodshed elsewhere. At the same time, however, the infiltration by criminal groups does suggest that there is the potential for a serious deterioration in public security. The existence of three rival groups determined to take control could be the catalyst for a sharp decline.
Michoacan is an attractive target for traffickers for a variety of reasons. Its remote hillsides have been used by marijuana producers for many years, and reports of marijuana seizures in the state have been frequent under Calderon. The states is also home to one of Mexico’s most significant ports in Lazaro Cardenas, which is used for the import of illicit substances from cocaine to precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamine.
The state has been the site of some of the most aggressive federal offensives against organized crime. President Felipe Calderon, a Michoacan native, kicked off his presidency by sending a large military deployment to the state less than two weeks after his inauguration in 2006. Federal authorities arrested dozens of state and local officials in Michoacan for alleged links with organized crime in 2009, an episode later dubbed the "michoacanazo." All of those arrested were later freed for lack of evidence.
Criminal groups have also fought constantly -- and viciously -- with federal forces throughout Calderon’s tenure. Twelve federal agents were murdered in a single attack in July 2009; 10 more killed in June the following year. In both cases, the Familia Michoacana was thought to be responsible. On at least two occasions, Gomez has accused federal police of attacking the families of Familia members in interviews with media outlets.