Do Not Go Down This Dark Path, Michoacan

Last year, paramilitary self defense groups vaulted onto the stage in Mexico’s ongoing struggle against narcotraffickers. The editors of Colombia’s leading El Tiempo have some advice for their northern neighbor: resist this further ‘Colombianization’ of Mexico’s drug war:

The paramilitary phenomenon is nothing new in Mexico. Since the days of the Revolution more than a century ago now, there have been armed gangs that claim to be seeking justice at the margins of the law. In recent months, paramilitaries have started to seek official recognition, beginning by naming themselves the “Michoacan Self-Defenses,” taking credit for operations, and presenting their leaders to the public. These newly minted paramilitaries consider themselves the scourge of the narcotraffickers and the gangs who work for the mafia bosses.

The presence of the anti-narco paramilitaries is yet another new element in the panorama of violence that drug trafficking and criminality that has overtaken the Spanish speaking world’s most populous country. Since the day that the now former president Felipe Calderon declared war on organized crime in Dec. 2006, the clashes between gangs and with the forces of the state have left more than 60,000 dead. In the meantime, more than 121,000 have been arrested, the majority linked to the most vicious cartels in this bloody landscape, those of the Gulf Cartel and the “Zetas.” These last have their own violent antithesis: the “Matazetas” who in Sept. 2011 killed 35 members of the enemy group in Veracruz.

There are visible similarities between the process that is playing out in Mexico and what Colombia went though, to the extent that the Mexican press sometimes refers to the “Colombianization” of the country. But there are important differences. For one thing, now that the Zapatista movement of Chiapas has dissolved, there is no guerilla movement in Mexico to add to the equation. For another, the history of groups who dispense their own justice is a long one in Mexico. Already in the 1970s there were the ‘Halcones’ [Falcons]. a group linked to the army, whose aim was to infiltrate and attack the student movements. In 1976, the so-called “White Brigade” came to light, a paramilitary group created years before by security officials to persecute communists. According to UN consultant Edgardo Buscaglia, 167 paramilitary groups operate in the country, financed by anyone from businessmen to state governors.

Michoacan, the state that sits between the capital and the country’s second largest city, Guadalajara is a particularly violent land. At a certain point, the state here fostered the development of “community police,” the first seed of the paramilitaries. Today, according to the state governor, these organizations, made up of civilians, have been dissolved. But in their place the self-defenses have appeared. Their leader is Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, a doctor from Tecaltepec who has had various family members kidnapped by narcotraffickers. These days, the old doctor takes over villages with a bullet proof vest and a rifle, at the head of a group of men who are armed to the teeth, and expels people who are linked to the narcos. In February of last year, his group came to notoriety with its seizure and ‘cleanup’ of a town that had been controlled by the ‘Knights Templar,’ who are neither knightly nor Templars, but rather vulgar murderers. The state government calculates that the anti-narco paramilitaries now have fighting units in a third of the municipalities of Michoacan.

In the sordid mess of armed groups, it is sometimes difficult to tell who is doing the shooting. It is still not clear whether it was the narcos, the ‘paracos’ or common criminals who last Sunday ambushed an army patrol and killed two soldiers. The paramilitaries are another piece of bad news for Mexico. Only the monopoly of armament and a strong judicial apparatus can truly help put an end to the many-headed war that this great country is fighting.

El Tiempo Editors