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Mexico’s anti-drug cartel and corruption vigilante groups are growing in power and influence, but whose interests do they serve?

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OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: In Michoacán, Mexico, local community militias called autodefensas, or self defenses, have been liberating towns and cleaning from the powerful drug cartels that for four years also extorted the citizens and took a cut of every aspect of the economy. On January 27, they accepted a deal with the Mexican federal government to work together controlling the powerful local criminal rings.

However, there is little trust in the Mexican government, and mainly in the integrity of their elected officials. Many still wonder why. The governor Fernando Vallejo sent the army to disarm the autodefensas, causing four civilian deaths and preventing the seizing of the city of Apatzingan by the Militias. Vallejo has been accused of being elected under threats to the population made by the local cartels’ bosses to vote for PRI, the ruling party.

This explosive announce of official corruption was made by both the autodefensas as well as the narco bosses, who posted a video talking about the deal with PRI.

After the governor Fernando Vallejo called for federal help, Enrique Peña Nieto implemented by presidential decree an initiative creating a czar for security and development in Michoacán, a post for which he invested his close ally Alfredo Castillo Cervantes, who will now be in charge of both federal forces and civil servants.

In all the cities that the militias have liberated, one of the main steps taken so far is to capture the local policeman, and in some cases even elected officials, and expel them out of the city. Father Javier Cortez confirmed that in Apatzingan the federal troops also sent the municipal police away in an effort to reach a settlement with the autodefensas.

The Mexican government announced that 1,209 police agents have been disarmed and demobilized.

The autodefensa militias are skeptical of the federal effort and have declared they will not disarm until all the criminal gangs, and especially their main leaders, are captured or killed. Initially they consulted their ranks and rejected a petition from the government to disarm, and this represented a political embarrassment to the Peña Nieto administration, which in a very tactical move eventually accepted this and went a step further, not only accepting the militias’ will to stay mobilized, but incorporating them in the fight against the Caballeros Templarios.

ESTANISLAO BELTRAN, BUENAVISTA, TOMATLAN’S MILITIA SPOKESPERSON (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We will disarm only when Michoacán State is cleaned of the Templar Knights and their main bosses, Nazario Moreno (aka El Chayo), La Tuta, Enrique Plancarte, El Tibo, and all of their lieutenants are captured, setting our state free of fear. Then we will disarm. Not before.

LEÓN: People like Estanislao Beltran make a daring bet not only by embarrassing the Mexican authorities, but also by defying the powerful international cartels, for which Michoacán plays a small but important part in the international criminal trade.

Evidence exists that implicates large international banks, like Wachovia and Wells Fargo, in laundering billions of dollars from cartels back into the economy. How can you challenge such power?

In the past there have been documented ties between federal government officials and narco cartels, like General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who, while being Mexico’s antidrug czar, was actively protecting the Juárez Cartel until 1997, when he was detained; also, more recently, the ties between Genaro García Luna, former main boss in the federal police in the payroll of El Golfo, Los Zetas, and Beltran Leiva cartels, as DEA and even La Barbie, a narco boss himself, had recently revealed.

BELTRAN: Initially the people wouldn’t respond because they knew that the criminals had threatened to not only kill us, but all of our families and even the house dogs—they had said so.

LEÓN: But who are these militias? Who finances them? Do they have political view? For an informed social and political analysis of this social conflict, we contacted Salvador Diaz Sanchez, an experienced journalist and professor of social and political sciences in Chapingo University.

Diaz is well acquainted with the Mexican social movements over the last decades. He even worked documenting the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas from the inside 20 years ago. He has produced since many other documentary films about the Mexican social struggle.

SALVADOR DIAZ SANCHEZ, JOURNALIST AND PROFESSOR OF SOCIAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCES (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The autodefensas are inspired by what happened in Cherán. This is the first town that while under attack like everyone else, had the audacity to organize, and eventually overcame their fear by organizing themselves.

They not only cleared the area of criminals and gave everyone else an example that you can fight and win. They went a step beyond that. They called the local and international [human rights institutions and international courts] and said that in popular and neighborhood assemblies, “we have identified our enemies and we will expel the political parties from our towns, because they divide our people and are colluding with the criminals”.

LEÓN: Diaz refers to the local community uprising that started on April 15, 2011, when illegal loggers where arrested by the community. They then instituted a popular assembly and “community police rounds” to keep its forest safe from illegal loggers.

In Cherán, the communities also decided to expel the political parties.

Cherán immediately began a judicial and political fight to not recognize the municipal and state’s elections. After litigating in many instances, Michoacán State Congress granted the community council municipal authority. They had effectively defeated the Mexican political system and started their own traditional governance process based on their indigenous roots, which is now recognized by the Mexican government.

DIAZ: [In Cherán] they defeated the main structure of the political system. This is such a remarkable triumph, one that has not been widely promoted in the news.

LEÓN: Contrasting with Cherán’s “Community Rounds” and its primitive weapons, it is clear that in the last year it has been the wealthy owners of the lemon, avocado, and cattle farms of Michoacán who helped initiate the militias. They drive expensive trucks and use advanced communication systems and weapons. There have been reports that many people who have been deported or have even come back voluntarily from the U.S. are now involved with the autodefensas.

The autodefensas’ leaders have so far indicated that their only objective is not a political one but the safety and security of the citizenry. However, Diaz warns there could be more to it.

DIAZ: We must differentiate and not believe that this is a civil war. However, this [social conflict] can explode and become [a civil war], because new actors are being dragged in as time goes by, like more educated people and even leftists, liberal, and progressive people.

So that is the reason why the government wants to disarm them, and that is why they are losing control. It is because they remember that in Chiapas, the farmers were the ones [that fought the government], and now in Michoacán, there are not only farmers but also other groups of citizenry up in arms.

LEÓN: While Diaz recognizes that the rich owners of the farms are behind the autodefensas, he also points out that there are tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in arms in the militia ranks, some of which could eventually promote their own self-interested agenda.

Diaz: Obviously not all of them are rich. I think that the great majority of them are poor. In their ranks you can even find that the workers of the cattle, lemon, and avocado farms are fighting alongside their employers. So it is complicated to predict where this movement is going. But have no doubt that this is a social movement.

LEÓN: Diaz also points out that the government has twice changed its approach. Initially, a year ago, the federal authorities had supported the disarming of the militias, but after realizing that they cannot control the criminal gangs, they looked away and let the militias carry on with their intended purpose of cleaning up the towns of criminal gangs, all this, of course, until January 13, when the federal army impeded the seizing of Apatzingan by the autodefensas and ordered them to disarm before changing its mind again to save face and avoid a wider conflict after the autodefensas refused to lay down their arms.

Diaz believes that the militias have now twice proven its strength while the government looks weak. This puts the Mexican government in a predicament, which according to him is based on real political concerns.

DIAZ: What if Mireles [the militia leader] says that the fight is no longer only about security? What if the militia leaders gather and decide to claim other issues? What if they eventually install real community assemblies to reign over the prices of food and other issues like wages and a real improvement in their lives?

LEÓN: Now we must wait to see if the Mexican federal government is capable of reining in the violence of the criminal gangs and if it can disarm and demobilize a large group of people that have had a taste of armed popular resistance and community power.

Reporting for The Real News, this is Oscar León.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Oscar León is an experienced international press correspondent and documentary filmmaker based in Arizona. His work has reached continental TV broadcast in many occasions on Telesur, ECTV, Ecuavisa, Radio Canada, Canal Uno and even Fox Sports Latin America and El Garaje TV; he has been a TRNN correspondent since 2010. Oscar has reported from as many as 9 countries and more than 12 cities in US; his coverage includes TV reports, special reports and TV specials, not only covering social movements, politics and economics but environmental issues, culture and sports as well. This includes the series "Reportero del Sur", "Occupy USA - El Otoño Americano", "Habia una vez en Arizona", "Motor X" all TV mini series broadcasted to all Americas and "Once upon a time in Arizona" finalist in Radio Canada's "Migration" 2010 contest.