In February 2013, in the villages of Cheran and Tierra Caliente in Michoacan, two separate self-defense militias began pushing back against the Knights Templar Cartel. All signs point to the two autodefensas, or communitarios, arising entirely separately from each other, and in fact, they have followed two very different models.
Cheran is a majority-indigenous town, and is still largely governed by their old traditions and customs. The community policing fit well into their traditions, as City Hall was replaced by a council of 12 elected members in 2011, and so the communitarios became an outgrowth of self-government that was already there. The Cheran communitarios didn’t just push back against the cartels, having also expelled illegal loggers who were moving into the area.
The Tierra Caliente situation is much different, in large part because the population is considerably more mixed. The majority are mestizos, working for larger farm and ranch owners, and the economic character of the area is much more diverse than around Cheran. As a result of these different factors, what has come out of Tierra Caliente is more of a “Self-Defense Militia,” as opposed to “Community Policing.” The difference is that Community Policing is an established part of the legal framework in the area, while a Self-Defense Militia is a temporary force raised to establish security.
There has been considerable concern from the Mexican government about these groups. The Michoacan groups are by no means unique; the central government has admitted recently that there are self defense groups in 13 Mexican states. They have largely been seen as challenges to the government’s authority, with Mexican politicians asking them to lay down their weapons, and the Army actually confronting them more than once. The fact that more than one self-defense group has thrown out the police for corruption has contributed to the distrust of these militias.
However, the self-defense groups were formed because of perceived weakness or complete inactivity by the Mexican authorities. Cheran is now considered one of the safest places in Michoacan, even though they are still occasionally harassed by criminal elements.
The Mexican government’s concerns have had some basis; the Knights Templar Cartel in fact started as a self-defense group to combat Los Zetas. They have since turned to the same drug trafficking and violence that they were formed to combat.
In spite of these concerns, however, on January 27, 2014, the Michoacan autodefensas signed an agreement with the Mexican government rolling them into the Rural Defense Corps, or Rurales. The Rurales date back to the 1860s, and were effectively used to promote security between the 1860s and the 1920s. Officially, the Corps was never dissolved, so it still falls under the control of the military. As a result of the agreement, the autodefensas will have to provide the military with lists of their membership and register their weapons. In turn, the authorities are responsible for providing other equipment and maintaining communications between the authorities and the groups involved. There are also clauses in the agreement for the prosecution of government and state officials accused of criminal acts, as well as ensuring trials in Michoacan for those accused of carrying weapons.
It remains to be seen how well the arrangement will work out, but given the history of the recent narco-wars in Mexico, and the inability of the government to exert control over large areas of the country, it seems logical that utilizing popular forces, before they can become corrupted like the Knights Templar, could potentially fill a glaring security gap in Mexico.