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Michoacán - communists and armed struggle against drug cartels

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Michoacán - communists and armed struggle against drug cartels


The rise of the autodefensas, the armed community groups who have mobilized throughout southwestern Mexico against narcotrafficking rings as well as corrupt government officials and police, has caught the attention of many Westerners in the past weeks. In particular, the self-defense groups of Michoacán state have seen a significant jump in press after they successfully seized various towns in the southwestern Tierra Caliente region from local authorities, figures who have shown themselves either incapable or unwilling—or both—to deal decisively with the reign of violence imposed by the Knights Templar drug cartel.

Recently, I had a chance to speak briefly with a comrade from the Communist Party of Mexico (marxist-leninist) about some of the recent events in the state, and the significance of the self-defense groups in light of the broader national situation: the return of the former ruling PRI to power after a 12 year hiatus, and an increased offensive by Mexico's oligarchy against historic popular gains and institutions. What follows is a quick translation of that Q&A.


The presence of narcotrafficking in Michoacan is not a recent thing. When was it that organized crime began to arise in the state? What were the socioeconomic and structural causes in the state and the country that allowed the Knight’s Templar—and previously the Michoacan Family—to consolidate themselves in so many towns of Michoacan?

It has always been there, only in a secret and hidden way. Before the rise of the new world capitalist crisis they began to engage in extortion, kidnappings, asking quotas from each vendor or worker with any more-or-less disposable income. 

Through that, along with the rapes of women and the kickbacks received by the municipal presidents of the 113 municipalities of Michoacan, they were able to consolidate themselves in all spheres, from the economic all the way to the political and military through the arrival of the PRI to power in Michoacan and at the federal level.

There is evidence in the official newspapers of the state like La Voz de Michoacan, as well as videos on YouTube, which indicate that the current secretary of the state government, Jesus Reyna Garcia (brother-in-law of “La Tuta,” the proclaimed representative of the Knights Templar) had made agreements before the elections to buy votes, to ferry people to voting locations, to threaten or kidnap those who wouldn’t comply, like what happened in the Purepechan Plateau and particularly in Tierra Caliente. All of this is within the logic of the PRI’s structures which can guarantee their victory.

From there the Knight’s Templar, two months after the PRI rose to power, convoked the municipal presidents to establish monthly quotas and to open new avenues for the sale of narcotic products.

The so-called war against narcotrafficking in Mexico has been going on for seven years now since it was started by ex-President Felipe Calderon. In this time, what changes, if any, have taken place in Michoacan? What does this ‘war’ mean in light of the growing neoliberal domination of Mexico?

None, there hasn’t been any change, and unemployment, insecurity, forced disappearances, kidnappings, imprisonment and assassinations of social fighters have increased during this period.

According to Human Rights Watch, there were 26,121 disappearances during the six-year term of Calderon, and at the state level according to the Human Rights Commission there are more than 600 disappearances. And this is happening without the Attorney General of Justice of the State, the Attorney General of the Republic, the the State Commission on Human Rights, or the National Commission on Human Rights paying any attention or giving any favorable response to the families of the disappeared--or to the people of Michoacan and Mexico more broadly--in light of their demands for justice and freedom.

This all has to do with the fact that the present character of the international bourgeoisie is the hegemony of the large international monopolies, the financial oligarchy, and of course narcotrafficking which, as a capitalist enterprise that produces, markets, and creates value, has generated direct clashes with communities. It is a class struggle to the death for the market, the sites of circulation and territorial control of some regions of the state.

In the United States’ media, the self-defense groups are referred to as “vigilantes,” a term that in English has negative connotations. Even the concept of “self-defense” can be confusing, given that the so-called “self-defense groups” of Colombia exist precisely to defend the narco-state and terrorize the Colombian people and their popular organizations. Could you offer us a short summary of how the Mexican self-defense movement arose, and what they represent within the social context of Michoacan and the country? In what way are they organized on a national and state level, and in what ways are they independent of each other?

The self-defense groups are the people who have organized as a result of the crimes that I spoke to earlier. They are also a result of the government’s absence in imposing justice, and due to the agreements between the government and the narcotraffickers, since they won’t imprison those who gave them electoral support.

In each state there are distinct forms of organization and struggle, since the conditions are different in each state. For example, in Guerrero the communitarian police has its roots in the indigenous communities where they are organized, and they organize and elect through a popular assembly; that is to say, they are organized by those who make up their ranks and the people watch to make sure that decisions are fulfilled. In Michoacan, the armed self-defense groups are not necessarily communards nor do they necessarily belong to any indigenous community. There aren’t elections, and this is a more dangerous approach because it can divert the struggle’s perspective.

If there aren’t elections, then they don’t have to respond to the people, they don’t make decisions which arise from the people, and they could possibly end up at the very service of the narcotraffickers, fall into paramilitarism, or end up at the service of the state—which is what happened in recent days during the meetings between the state and the self-defense groups.

In the past week, the situation in Michoacan became known to the whole world, after the state government of Fausto Vallejo (PRI) decided to send troops to the western part of the state to retake towns under the control of the community police forces. Why now? What are the stakes for the government at this time, and why does the government of Michoacan feel obligated to disarm the self-defense organizations but leaves a large amount of Tierra Caliente under the control of the Knight’s Templar?

Mostly this is a result of the advance of the self-defense groups in different localities and important municipalities. The state government was obliged to retake control with the assistance of the federal government, specifically to disarm the self-defense groups and not to fight the templarios. Like I said earlier, the military-government and the templarios are a triple alliance behind narcotrafficking, and it feels obligated to act because the situation could unravel into a social uprising due to all the suffering people are experiencing in the state and in the Mexican republic.

Representatives of the self-defense groups have stated that their fight is not with the Mexican government, and they even appear ready to disarm if and when the Knight’s Templar and other criminal groups are defeated. Is this a view that is more or less universal among the ranks of the self-defense groups, or is it the case that there is a desire for new forms of communitarian government—like those in Cheran—or even a desire to mobilize for deeper structural changes? How do you think that the class contradictions within the ranks of the communitarian police, given that their composition is very broad, influence the strategic thinking of the movement? What role do communists play in all this?

That’s how it is, they are fighting only against narcotrafficking, not for revolutionary or democratic changes but rather to defend their families from extortion and all the bad that comes along with that. And these opinions are prominent because there is no organization to lead the seizure of power, one which understands that narcotrafficking is one of the evils of capitalism itself and in order to end it necessarily requires revolutionary struggle and the seizure of power by the proletariat, the poor campesinos, and the popular masses to install their own government, their own laws, their own economy, etc.

In this sense, revolutionaries and communists are obliged to educate the movement in tactics and strategy to advance along the revolutionary path. Because of this, the essential task of the Communist Party of Mexico (marxist-leninist) which came out of the National General Congress in 2013, is to grow our ranks numerically but to also strengthen qualitatively. We are for the revolutionary accumulation of forces, to strengthen our newspaper Proletarian Vanguard and other media to spread and agitate for the necessity of a new revolution of a proletarian character, and to lead all the clashes of the class struggle that are emerging at the national level in order to be in the best conditions to prepare for the strategic objective.

Beyond the struggle against organized crime, what are some of the social and economic struggles of the region, and in what way does your party try to connect these fights with communist ideas and organization?

There’s the proletarian struggle against unemployment, unjustified dismissal, for fair salaries and the right to unionization, like the struggle happening right now in the region of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan.

There is also the teacher’s struggle against the educational and labor reforms, along with that of the students for higher budgets in public education, higher enrollment and against the curricular reforms in the rural Normal schools, not to mention against the closing of the student houses of the Coordinator of University Students in Struggle.

And we have related these struggles to the ongoing structural reforms. Our party has upheld the tactic of the period to be a large singular front to fight and unite all the anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, and progressive forces against the structural reforms and against the capitalist regime, holding as the central slogan “Mexico Has No President” because the current president is the result of an imposition.

Is there anything else we North Americans should know about what’s happening in Michoacan?

That here we are, in the trenches of class struggle, that in the Communist Party of Mexico (marxist-leninist) and the Revolutionary Popular Front you’ll find a vanguard loyal to the just causes of the proletariat, the poor campesinos and the broad popular masses.


Que vivan las campesinas y los campesinos de Colombia!


People in this conversation

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    The following article appeared this morning on the AFP (Associated Foreign Press). One thing that is striking is that the “autodefensas” are obviously still being referred to and promoted pejoratively as “vigilantes.” But while it is understandable how Apatzingán would be a big focus of the autodefensas—the situation there has been particularly brutal for the people (and the Mexican govt. has turned this locale into a police state)--, and the autodefensas appear to be growing in numbers, there is the gnawing contradiction of “more recently the vigilantes have been seen as allies of the federal government.”

    The above interview was helpful in understanding some of the contradictions and various forces—but one thing that I think is understandably still unclear is how those contradictions are being handled. (e.g., that this isn’t just a fight against the drug cartels, but the government, officials, police, corruption, etc. who are the equal, if not more so, enemies of the people.)

    Here’s the article from the AFP:

    Vigilantes enter Mexican drug cartel’s key bastion
    Morelia (Mexico) (AFP) - Vigilante militias that have fought a drug cartel in western Mexico for a year entered a key gang bastion on Saturday, manning checkpoints and helping federal forces find criminals.

    Vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran said that hundreds of his colleagues manned checkpoints outside the Michoacan state city of 120,000 to "check who goes in and out."

    Heavily armed men were seen building walls of sandbags outside Apatzingan, the main city in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), a lush agricultural region.

    Another 150 vigilantes were deployed with police and military patrols inside Apatzingan to search "all the homes" of suspected gang members.

    The vigilantes said they had captured Antonio Plancarte, the brother of a recently arrested Knights Templar leader. Authorities did not confirm Plancarte's detention.

    Fernando Cano, the Michoacan state deputy government secretary, said the vigilantes who went into the city were unarmed.

    Cano said the men were members of new "rural defense" forces that were recently formed under the army's oversight to legalize the vigilante movement.

    - Praying for peace -
    Catholic churchgoers packed the Apatzingan Cathedral late Saturday, where the vicar, Gregorio Lopez -- best known as "Father Goyo" -- celebrated mass and prayed a rosary "for peace."

    The priest, who considers the fight against drug gangs one of his top duties, then led a rally in the town plaza. The crowd of some 400 that gathered to hear him included local residents and vigilantes.

    Lopez, who wears a bullet-proof vest even when he celebrates mass, has organized peace rallies such as these with no authorization from the Catholic hierarchy.

    Hipolito Mora, a vigilante spokesman who earlier met privately with Lopez, urged the crowd to "trust the government, to cooperate in handing them information."

    - Vigilantes take charge -

    (Related Stories
    Mexican vigilantes say they're in gang-held city Associated Press Vigilante groups: we're in major gang-held city Associated Press Mexico captures Knights Templar leader AFP Mexican Vigilantes Beat Back Ruthless Knights Templar Cartel Mexico says catches senior Knights Templar drug gang boss Reuters )

    The movement has since grown, posing the biggest security challenge of President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration.

    Pena Nieto deployed thousands of troops to Michoacan in May, but the continuing violence forced him to focus more forces last month in Tierra Caliente.

    In late January, the federal government decided to legalize the movement. Around 600 have signed up so far of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes.

    Beltran said the force entered Apatzingan in coordination with the federal government.

    In October, the army had prevented vigilantes from entering Apatzingan with their weapons. Those who went in unarmed were met with gunfire.

    The self-defense forces have since seized several towns around Apatzingan, essentially surrounding the city.

    The Knights Templar, a cult-like gang that claims to be the protector of Michoacan, has accused the vigilantes of working as a proxy force for the rival Jalisco New Generation drug cartel.

    Some officials indicated last year that some vigilante groups might have been infiltrated by the Jalisco cartel.

    But more recently the vigilantes have been seen as allies of the federal government.

    The Knights Templar import drug precursors from Asia to cook crystal meth that they then export to the United States.

    The gang has also taken hold of much of Michoacan's economy, demanding protection payments from farmers and shopkeepers as well as extracting iron ore that they then export to China.

  • Guest - Miles Ahead

    What a coincidence. I just received the following email from my bestest friend in Morelia, Michoacán. He is an extremely progressive man, whose former partner of 17 yrs. lives in Apatzingán. Mí amigo's take (after going to see for himself) is a slightly different point of view--I think probably reflecting a more general pov--but he has been one of the one's who for year's has been saying--this is not just the cartels, but the govt.'s complicity and connections in all this...and his view is widespread. And all this is right on his doorstep...most starkly with a horrible reality--one of his closest friends disappearing (vanished!) back in May 2013. (The family has yet to report this disappearance, still afraid of repercussions from the police and politicians in Michoacán.)

    "Por acá las cosas no creas que mejoran, al contrario, empeoran cada día. El fin de semana pasado me fui a Apatzingán. Las cosas están de verdad feas, ya no me dan ganas de volver hasta que las cosas se arreglen, pero no sabemos cuando. Ayer entraron a la ciudad las autodefensas. Son grupos armados de civiles, no de policías, que se están encargando de hacer limpieza de los grupos criminales, pero desafortunadamente eso también es parte de la violencia. En realidad es más la gente que las apoya, pero no es la solución, sólo que el gobierno no hace lo que debe, así que la gente se está organizando para defenderse. Todo mundo me dijo que por qué fui, pero necesitaba verlo con mis propios ojos y además mostrarle mi solidaridad a mis amigos.Ya lo hice y no me quedaron ganas de repetirlo. Haré lo que pueda desde aquí. Han agarrado a unos cuantos criminales pero no de los principales y eso no acabará hasta que los agarren a todos.

    Aquí en Morelia las cosas no están tan mal como allá, pero vivimos en la sosobra."

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