Monday, August 6, 2012
Town Battles Livelihood Takeovers by Criminal Gangs
The article, which appeared in a recent edition of Proceso, reports from Cheran, southern Mexico,
where the crime-weary residents took up arms to chase out criminals linked to the Familia Michoacana and the Caballeros Templarios
last year. The response of the gangs has been brutal -- the authors report that 15 locals have since been murdered and another
five have disappeared, but the townspeople have kept control of their municipality, despite what Proceso calls a lack of support
from the state and federal governments.
The piece demonstrates how far
criminal groups in Michoacan have expanded beyond drug trafficking and enmeshed themselves in the broader economy. The Caballeros
and the Familia remain important drug traffickers, but they are also active players in logging, mining, water extraction,
and everyday commerce. The fact that they also often use extortion to put the squeeze on the legal actors in each economic
sector increases the harm inflicted on (and resentment flowing from) the general population.
The Familia Michoacana first rose to prominence in 2006, when they tossed several severed heads onto the dance floor
of a nightclub in Apatzingan, a city in Michoacan, as a warning to their enemies in the Milenio Cartel. They grew into one
of the most fearsome and notorious gangs in Mexico, proving themselves capable of fighting off the Zetas, and at one point were described by the federal government as
the most dangerous criminal group in the country.
However, years of government pressure and internal divisions
have seriously weakened the group. Following the death of leader Nazario Moreno in a 2010 firefight, a portion of the Familia
defected to form the Caballeros Templarios, which operates in the same region and has been locked into a battle with what
remains of the Familia ever since.
What follows is InSight Crime's
translation of extracts from the Proceso piece:
"The armed community
police move further into the bare, devastated mountain. One group is already at the peak, protecting the rest. Any incursion
into the forest is dangerous at this point. It's obvious from the gutted foothills, with barely a last phalanx of burned
trunks still clinging to the ground. In these areas, devoid of the tall, thick, thousand-year-old trees that blocked out the
sun, shadows mark the ground today.
"'As they advance they light
fires, they chop down trees, they come to scare people, sowing terror so that the people give up and abandon the land. They
want to take over the entire region, we hear that they want to plant avocado and that we should get used to it,' says
the head of the group of community volunteers that functions as a local police force in this independent town, as we travel
around San Miguel mountain to the north.
"The massacre of the trees
is evident a kilometer from the outskirts of the town; that's as far as the tree-cutters go. They work under a man known
as 'El Guero,' from Rancho Rio Seco, who controls part of the Meseta Purepecha for the Caballeros Templarios. Some
media outlets have said his real name is Cuitlahuac Hernandez."
"Cheran has received media attention since April 15, 2011, when it rose up in defense
of its forests. But the struggle goes far beyond that. They are gambling on stopping the expansion of the business model that drug
trafficking groups have used throughout Michoacan: as they arrive at each new community, they entrench themselves in the mayor's
office, where they direct personnel, control trade and subjugate the vendors, they establish a 'derecho de piso' extortion
payment for all productive activities, extend the sale, traffic, production, and consumption of drugs, sponsor illegal activities,
and take over the highways, the forests, the productive lands, the mineral resources and even the water.
"Cheran is surrounded by communities where this is already happening. Huitzaco, for
example, is a town inhabited by dozens of productive mine 'owners' who remain poor because they are simply front men.
In San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro the stall owners in the market have begun to be harassed for extortion payments. Armed men
visit the orchards of the avocado growers in Uruapan, producers of the world-famous 'green gold,' obligating them
to become partners and sell the crops to them.
"For Total Control
"Cheran was on the same path until it decided to fight, without receiving any assistance
from the state or the federal government thus far.
climate, which is cold, doesn't allow the land to produce avocado; that's not why they want it. But our land is good
for growing nice marijuana plants, like there are in other nearby communities, or for installing narco-labs in the more distant
zones, like the ones that they have found in El Cerecito. The sand mines and gravel quarries are tempting. Our forests are
useful for producing lumber. What they want is more money. And they even wanted to charge the community for the water that
we take from the well,' explains one of the community members who was among those who initiated the movement and preferred
to remain anonymous.
"Last April, she and a group of other women
went up the mountain, accompanied by their small children, to try to start a dialogue with the men who brought earth-movers
to strip the mountain by night, and by day walked around among the uprooted trunks. Without telling their husbands, they approached
the men and asked, please, respect the trees that are hundreds of years old around the wells, because you are going to leave
the community thirsty. But they were treated like 'nosy broads' and driven off at gunpoint.
"Now angered, at dawn on the 15th of the month they stopped the first logging trucks from passing through the
community, and when the tree-cutters responded with gunfire, the people came out to defend themselves. Since then, the Cheran
residents haven't let down their guard: the town lives behind trenches lined with sandbags, has installed its own police
force, and every resident has turned into a patrolman."
"On October 14, 2010, Mexico's Attorney General's Office announced the capture
of Javier Lopez Medina, financial operator of the Familia Michoacana and alleged administrator of the funds coming from extortion
payments, payments from kidnappings, as well as the sale of drugs and illegal exportation to China of 1.1 million tons of
iron ore, valued at $42 million.
"'The theft of minerals in this
area has been on the rise in recent years, thanks to the zone being controlled by this criminal organization. Ignacio Javier
Lopez Medina maintained commercial relations with important international businesses established in Mexico, dedicated to the
export of iron ore to China,' the agency said."
Patrick Corcoran is a writer and international relations student who specializes in Mexican affairs.
He blogs at Gancho (http://www.ganchoblog.blogspot.com/).
This commentary, "How a
South Mexican Town Rose up Against Drug Gangs," was first published in InSight Crime on August 1, 2012, and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's
objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.