Mexican government forces have stepped up security measures in an attempt to quell clashes between vigilante groups and drug cartels in several towns.
Over the last year, vigilante groups have sprung up all over the Western state of Michoacán in response to the continuous intimidation of cartel groups, the most prominent being the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar, whose main source of income is smuggling methamphetamine into the U.S., has terrorized civilians for almost a decade, with minimal interference from federal forces and local police.
Two weeks ago, vigilantes took a stand against the ruthless cartels and seized several towns including Apatzingán, Guerrero and Nueva Italia. The self-defence groups claim that they are fighting for their freedom. Many residents feel the vigilantes are their only viable means of protection.
Apatzingán, the biggest city of the area with a population of 100,000, has experienced the worst of the clashes. As the vigilante groups continued to gain power and new recruits, members of the Knights Templar fought back even harder, using firebombs, destroying city hall, attacking businesses and power sub-stations and even threatening to burn down the city.
As violence continued to intensify, Mexican Federal forces moved in with helicopters full of officers and investigators in response to the escalating situation. In the commotion the military shot down three vigilantes, much to the outrage of the Apatzingán townspeople who felt the wrong party was under attack.
Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong has urged vigilantes to give up their weapons and even to join the police ranks. Vigilantes have refused both counts, one leader expressing “if we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs.”
The alleged self-defence groups have surfaced as a result of the security void and constant terrorising of innocent civilians. However, many fear that the vigilante groups could become increasingly powerful and develop into a cartel group. This fear is not unwarranted, for this was the case with the Knights Templar who had also begun as a vigilante group. Initially part of La Familia Michoacana cartel, they split off from the group to defend residents from the Zetas. Soon after driving out the Zetas, the Knights Templar began imposing harsh demands on residents, charging fees to every person who owns a car, property or land. For example, they charge 20 cents for every $2 of tortillas sold, terrorising business owners and street vendors alike.
Security forces have intensified their response, bringing in hundreds of troops to the state of Michoacán. On 20 January, the military began arresting members of the Knights Templar in an attempt to stabilise the spiralling situation. The leader of the cartel group, Jesus Vasquez Macias, was arrested among other high-ranking members, and Federal forces are now in control of 27 of the state’s 113 municipalities.
Throughout this period, President Enrique Peña Nieto has remained publicly silent on the subject, alluding to earlier comments about moving the conversation about Mexico from violence to the economy. However, his full attention is required. For many years they have been free to operate and grow in prominence and authority. Moreover, while young Mexicans lack education and employment opportunities, the allure of cartels is too strong. They pay far more money for significantly less work than a farmer or shopkeeper could.
As vital as it is for a focus on the economy to boost the struggling GDP, Peña Nieto must also stabilise the security of the state. Only then can the Mexican government help the economy achieve its maximum potential. Peña Nieto’s economic strategy can only go so far without the needs of the people being at its core.