This article was first published at The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor on Wednesday, November 13th, 2013:
For Hipolito Mora, the owner of a lime plantation in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s 32 states, the final straw was the refusal of a packing company to buy his fruit because he wouldn’t pay a 10% kickback to the drug cartel that owned it. For Miguel Patino Velaquez, it was the sight of others in his town taking up arms and joining forces to fight the cartel. For Leticia, a lime picker, her tipping point came when she and her two children witnessed the kidnapping of a taxi driver by members of the cartel in broad daylight without a single policeman in sight.
Said Leticia: “We live in bondage. [The cartel] treats people like animals.”
Beginning as a rag-tag, eclectic collection of farmers, lime growers, and pickers and other locals, the number of such fuerzas autodefenses has grown in numbers and in weaponry, and are beginning to clean out the infestation of the Caballeros Templarios, the Knights Templar as the cartel likes to call itself. They now carry AK-47s and drive military vehicles and SUVs they have captured in raids on the cartel.
Recruiting has been helped along as the cartel has retaliated by torching gas stations and closing down an electric utility that kept 420,000 residents in the city of Apatzingán and surrounding areas without power for two days in late October. It was also helped by an outrageous attack by the cartel on a local mayor, whose kidnapping, torture, and murder even made headlines in the Los Angeles Times.
The mayor, Ygnacio Lopez Mendoza, of Santa Ana Maya, had spoken out against the cartel, and it cost him his life. He had tweeted: “For every building work, we have to pay the Knights Templar 10%. All of us, Michoacán mayors, have this problem.” He added:
The insecurity … is something that everybody in the world knows, but no one talks about. Why? Because we have to deal with organized crime – we have to pay them.
A few days later his mutilated corpse was found in the front seat of his car.
So successful have been the efforts of the local self-defense forces that Mexico’s Attorney General Murillo Karam asked to meet with the leader of one of the citizens’ groups, Jose Manuel Mireles, to ask how they might help him rid the area of the cartel vermin. Within days, local police and military forces entered the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas on the southwest coast of Mexico, which had been taken over by the cartel. Forty local police officers were arrested and bused to Mexico City to be interrogated about their ties to the cartel, which had used the port as a major distribution center for drugs and precursor chemicals for meth to the United States.
Last Thursday, those military forces arrested the entire 25-member police force of Vista Hermosa, in northern Michoacán, on suspicion of colluding with the cartel.
So far, at least six towns have been cleansed, but the cartel is still very much in charge. It is headed up by Servando Gómez Martínez, who has been indicted in the US for conspiring to import cocaine and methamphetamine from Mexico into the US and then distributing it throughout this country.
Caballeros Templarios is the third largest drug cartel in Mexico. It virtually owns the city of Apatzingán. It was on Martínez’s orders that half a dozen service stations there were burned down and the power plant was closed in order to intimidate the populace. When self-defense forces entered his city, they were forced to retreat, leaving at least five members dead on the streets.
The rule of law works only where it is respected. The fuerzas autodefenses often find that the cartel’s influence is so pervasive that the citizens are fighting not only the members of the cartel but the police and local governments as well. As a Mexican security analyst, Jorge Chabat, said:
[Mexican] presidents change, but the problems of violence and insecurity are still there.
These are structural issues that are the result of government failure. And they are very difficult to fix.
The lesson is clear: once the moral fiber of a people has rotted away, it’s nearly impossible for forces like those headed up by Mireles to restore righteousness. Unless the rule of law is respected by sufficient numbers of the citizenry, no amount of “cleansing” is likely to work.