Mexico mining companies extorted by criminal groups are reportedly paying Michoacan self-defense forces for protection, a development that places the groups on a disturbingly similar path to that taken by the paramilitary groups that terrorized Colombia.
A vigilante leader known as "El Americano" said that mining companies present in Tepalcatepec and Buenavista in Michoacan are paying self-defense groups $3 to $5 per ton of minerals to protect them from extortion by the Knights Templar criminal organization, reported Imagen del Golfo.
The Knights have been a major player in extorting the state's mining sector, which produces around 25 percent of Mexico's iron. Last June, it was revealed that the mining company Minera del Norte was paying the Knights Templar $2 per ton of minerals it extracted weekly in the region.
Michoacan's self-defense groups also appear to be becoming more sophisticated. According to a report by El Universal, they have developed a quasi-military structure with a command hierarchy and even accountants, and have recruited a cell of former Knights Templar hitmen to spearhead their attacks.
The militias are now armed with over 16,000 weapons -- many of them high caliber firearms like AK-47s -- according to Animal Politico. Under a legalization agreement recently signed with the government, the vigilantes are required to register their guns, and are only allowed two per person operating in the new Rural Defense Units. However, just over 800 weapons have been registered to date.
Militia members said they seized some of the weapons from the Knights Templar, while others were purchased on the black market. They denied claims they had bought weapons from rival drug cartels.
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One of the principal fears surrounding the legalization of Michoacan's vigilante groups is that they could turn into deadly paramilitary forces akin to those seen previously in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru.
Although the militias remain some distance from reaching this point, the fact that mining companies are now helping finance these groups is worryingly reminiscent of Colombia's paramilitaries. One of the driving forces behind the formation and growth of the Colombian groups was businesses tired of extortion at the hands of the country's leftist guerrilla groups, which were willing to fund the paramilitaries in return for protection.
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Within a matter of years, the paramilitaries were earning vast profits from protection money, whether it was provided voluntarily by complicit businesses or extorted at the point of a gun.
The unknown origins and military grade of the groups' weapons, along with their apparent recruitment of personnel from drug cartels is also a major concern, and also echoes the development of Colombia's paramilitaries into a fearsome military operation heavily involved in the drug trade.