Mexican citizens take the drug war into their own hands

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World," a co-production of the BBC's World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention and people in the western Mexican state of Michoacan are experiencing a primal sort of necessity. They need protection. They've seen drug cartel violence go unchecked by police, so they've picked up guns to defend themselves. At least that's what seems to be happening in Michoacan. Global Post reporter Dudley Althaus is there following these so-called "Self Defense Militias." He spoke to me earlier from Apatzingan.

Dudley Althaus: I'm standing, right now, in the central plaza of Apatzingan, which is the epicenter of all of this. There's heavy traffic, including some police, federal police and military patrols crossing through town all the time. I'm looking right now at two truckloads of heavily armed federal police. Yesterday, we spent the day with the militiamen in a town called Nueva Italia, which is about 20 miles from Apatzingan. They basically had control of that town, and we saw 30 militia gunmen armed with AK-47s, AR-15s and various calibre pistols.

Werman: What's it like being with these guys, Dudley?

Althaus: It's very calm. These guys are very welcoming to outsiders. They're a lot of guys between 18 to 22, 23, most of them. We talked to a number of guys on Wednesday who had spent their childhood in southern California, in the LA area. Some of these guys get paid by whoever paying them, but a lot of them are kids that, in civilian life, normal life, work as fruit pickers or I talked to a guy who worked in a box factory before he joined these guys. In some ways, these younger guys are kind of enjoying this. It gives them purpose to their lives. They think they're helping their communities and helping their people.

Werman: They seem to be battling a drug ring known as the Knights Templar. Who are they, and why did this group in particular foment this group of militias?

Althaus: The Knights Templar are sort of a quirky, quasi religious organization. They have their own code of ethics. But the Knights Templar have controlled Michoacan for more than a decade in various forms and under various names.

Werman: Are they more dangerous, the Knights Templar, than other gangs and cartels?

Althaus: Well, they've proved kind of brutal in this area. There have been a number of beheadings and they're very much into extortion. Everyone here will tell you, but the Templar deny that. Everyone here will say they extort people at all levels of society, from shoeshine people to the richest magnates. What you see is a lot of these guys say, even themselves as lime pickers, get extorted per box of what limes they pick. People are just kind of fed up. You hear that everywhere here.

Werman: You've met the leader of this network of militias going after the Knights Templar - a doctor named Jose Manuel Mireles. Tell us about him and why he got involved.

Althaus: He's a family physician and he was really involved in the local PTA, Parent Teachers Association, in his hometown, Tepalcatepec, which is one of the first towns that rose up against the Templar back last February. He spent 10 years in Modesto, California as a migrant. He worked with the Red Cross, worked with Metrokane, migrant organizations in California.

Werman: I have to say Dudley, the way you describe these militias - they sound a little like the salt of the Earth, just pushing back against this cartel when the real police weren't doing the job. I gather that there's some speculation that these militias are fighting on behalf of a rival drug gang, so who trusts them?

Althaus: There is a lot of suspicion that. It's a possibility here. These kids are pretty well armed. They have AK-47s. Some are old, some are new. AR-15s, assault rifles. The militias say that they've gotten their weapons from local business communities and local leaders, or have captured them from the Templar, but there is suspicion that they're working on behalf of the cartel, the Jalisco New Generation, which is out of Jalisco, the neighboring state, of which Guadalajara is the capital.

Werman: We've heard some reports that Mexican soldiers have made attempts to disarm the militias. What happens when they do that?

Althaus: They did attempt to disarm the militias on Monday, in a town very close to Apatzingan. A lot of local townspeople came out, tried to block the army from entering the town, the military shot in the air and then they shot into the crowd, killing 2. Since then, actually the governor has not tried to disarm the militias.

Werman: What occurs to you when you see this going on, Dudley?

Althaus: These people are filling a void left in these communities. The military's had thousands of soldiers here for more than 7 years, trying to take on the gangsters and haven't really done anything. So, the militias say they formed to fill that void. It's really a damning indictment of the lack of effectiveness of the federal forces and the federal effort here.

Werman: Dudley Althaus with the Global Post, thanks very much for telling us about these guys. We appreciate it.

Althaus: No problem.

Alejandro Hope: What you have there is a situation that is no longer about public safety. It is no longer about crime per say. What you have there is something that is approaching a low intensity armed conflict.

Werman: Alejandro Hope is keeping a close eye on the unrest in Michoacan. He's director of security policy at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness in Mexico City. Hope says Mexico's government has been of two minds when it comes to the self defense groups.

Hope: The federal government has had a schizophrenic policy vis-a-vis the self defense groups over the past year. Initially they saw them with a lot of suspicion and even tried to disarm them in some localities, but over the course of the summer and the fall, they probably started seeing them as functional allies in the fight against the Templar. This led them to adopt a policy of tolerance, adopting even in some case a full on cooperation with these groups, probably because they saw them as a way of fighting something of a proxy war.

Werman: I have to say, if this had happened in the United States, people would be throwing their hands up in the air and saying, "The Federal government is incompetent."

Hope: Well, to some extent, what this shows is the weakness of Mexican institutions, of Mexican law enforcement and criminal justice institutions. What this shows, particular at the local and state level, you have something of a void. You have a carcass of an institution and not really a lot of substance.

Werman: How is all of this affecting Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto? Came into office promising to reduce violence a little over a year ago. Is he delivering?

Hope: Well, to some extent homicides nationally have declined, driven mostly by improvements in northern cities, but there is still a huge challenge. Mexico last year - the final numbers are not in yet - but probably had somewhere between 23 to 24 thousand homicides. That's about 50% more than the US, with 1/3rd of the population. This is something that will not fix itself. This is something that is not likely to improve radically or dramatically. This will require a number of changes, a number of reforms, some of which are on their way, some of which are merely incipient, some of which haven't really started.

Werman: What kind of changes and reforms?

Hope: Well, first and foremost, there is a reform of the criminal justice system that is moving the system from a written inquisitorial system to one that is more akin to what you would find in the US. That is a long term process, it is going on at the state level, but again, it's slow moving. Secondly, police reform - some states have moved along in that direction, particularly in border states, northern border states, but others are laggards. Prison reform - most Mexican prisons are overflowing, they are ruled by the inmates themselves. There's very little control from the authorities and, of course, you need also a reform of social conditions that allows crime to reproduce itself. So, it's a very broad agenda, and that does not lend itself to easy solutions.

Werman: It sounds like a lot of work and perhaps something that a lot of people have been saying should have started years ago.

Hope: Yes. Partially, we're paying the price of negligence of many, many years. Over the past decades, there have been some efforts of reforms. However, those changes will take many years to bear fruit.

Werman: Alejandro Hope at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, thanks for your time.

Hope: Thanks very much for having me.