Mexico: Autodefensas shaping up to be “greatest security-policy test” of Peña Nieto’s government

This is a weekly roundup of events from 6 April to 12 April 2014

This week, the LA Times called the spread of vigilante groups in Michoacán and other states “the greatest security-policy test of the 16-month-old” government of President Enrique Peña Nieto – a telling statement when one considers the situation in Tamaulipas state discussed below. Since the Mexican government announced a plan to “legalize” the so-called self-defense forces, known as “autodefensas,” their presence has increasingly been a cause for concern.

While many were initially hopeful about the potential for the autodefensas to combat the influence of organized crime, it has become increasingly clear that the presence of loosely-regulated vigilante groups poses challenges of its own for the government. Allegations of cooperation with criminal groups, extortion of farmers and deadly internecine fighting among various factions have besmirched the autodefensas’ reputation as noble defenders of their communities. 

Despite these issues, the groups maintain strong community support, especially in the Tierra Caliente region, which includes parts of Michoacán, Guerrero and the State of Mexico. Nevertheless, Michoacán Federal Safety Commissioner Alfredo Castillo has given the self-defense forces in his state a choice: essentially, they can join the police or disarm.

José Manuel Mireles, the leader of an autodefensa in the Michoacán town of Tepalcatepec and spokesman for the General Council of Self-Defense of Michoacán (CAM), has pushed back against Castillo’s ultimatum. He threatened a blockade of the state if the government does not release detained members of the vigilante groups by May 10, the deadline for disarmament proposed by Castillo.

According to the self-defense groups, the government has detained more than 100 of their members. Protesters in Michoacán have already set up blockades as part of demonstrations against the government’s decision to disarm the autodefensas in their state. The demonstrators called for the ouster of Castillo, claiming that his decision to disarm the groups breaks with the earlier deal to incorporate them into the official security strategy.

Mireles hailed the recent arrest of former Michoacán Secretary of Government Jesús Reyna on allegations Reyna was linked to the Knights Templar cartel and said that the autodefensas would not disarm until the government “finishes cleaning the state of criminals.” He added that his group is not seeking the release of Hipólito Mora, the leader of an autodefensa in La Ruana, who was arrested in connection with the murder of two members of a rival autodefensa led by Luis Antonio Torres Gonzalez. Estanislao “Papa Smurf” Beltrán, the leader of an autodefensa in Buenavista, said that his group is seeking to integrate its members into the official security forces in order to avoid disarmament.  

Mireles claimed that the Gulf and Zetas cartels are plotting to take over Michoacán state, which is currently under the control of the Knights Templar. He reported that two days after Secretary of the Interior Osorio Chong spoke about disarming the self-defense groups, the autodefensa detected the presence of vehicles manned by assassins from the Gulf and Zetas organizations.

Meanwhile, in just the past week, more than 30 people have been killed in Tamaulipas state, signaling the possible fragmentation of the Gulf Cartel following the recent arrests of two of its top commanders. Clashes between criminal gangs on the Texas border killed 20 people on a single day. The violence is likely a continuation of a trend that began in 2010 when the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel and turned against their former partners. Both groups have been splintering recently, leading to bloody succession battles and turf wars.

Similarly, IHS Jane’s traces the spike in violence in Tamaulipas to the recent arrests of Jesús Alejandro Leal Flores (alias “Metro 24” or “El Simple”), one of the main leaders of the Gulf cartelas well as Javier Garza Medrano (alias “El Porrón”), one of the cartel’s founders. The arrests may have created a power vacuum, exacerbating the existing turf war between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas with the addition of a secession battle among factions of the splintering Gulf organization.

Mexican attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam said that Tamaulipas needs a “specific security strategy” to combat the recent spate of violence in the state. However, he did not specify what that strategy would involve beyond sending more federal security forces, which is a relatively common response to increased violence. Mexican newspaper El Diario reports that drug gangs, primarily the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, “control everything” in Tamaulipas state, from hotels, casinos and entertainment companies to beer distribution and gas stations.

Headlines

José Jesús Reyna Garcia, the Secretary General of the Government of Michoacán, was arrested on suspicions that he has ties to the Servando Gómez Martinez (alias “La Tuta”), one of the founding members of the Knights Templar cartel. In February of last year, autodefensa leaders in Michoacán accused Reyna of ties to the cartel, but at the time those charges were denied. Reyna has been removed from office while the investigation is underway. Michoacán Federal Safety Commissioner Alfredo Castillo hinted that there may be more arrests of public officials in the near future, saying, “It is going to be a total cleaning, fall who may!”

IB Times has a short profile of La Tuta. Despite a $2.3 million bounty on his head, the Knights Templar leader maintains a visible public profile, styling himself as an “altruistic” Robin Hood-type gangster.

Extortion by criminal groups of the avocado business in Michoacán has brought them around $770 million since 2009 according to an estimate by avocado producers in the municipality of Tancitaro. Michoacán is the source for more than half of the global avocado supply. While autodefensas in the region have started to redistribute some farmland that had been stolen by the Knights Templar cartel, there are reports that some of the groups have failed to return confiscated properties and instead have set up their own extortion rackets.

The wife of Enrique Hernández, the leader of an autodefensa in Michoacán implicated in the murder of Tanhuato mayor Gustavo Gariba, has alleged that he was tortured following his arrest. Lornzo Corro, director of legal guidance for the State Human Rights Commission in Michoacán as well as a doctor working for the agency stated that Hernández had sustained injuries consistent with that story.

Mexican army forces killed four people in Tamaulipas who were suspected of carrying out an attack on a hotel last week. The troops seized 17 rifles, 11 grenades, two grenade launchers, three handguns, ammunition, tactical gear and marijuana from the suspects.

Organized crime groups have been stealing airplanes in northeastern Mexico. Luis Gerardo García Martínez , Director of State Airport Services, said he has asked the Army and the Federal Police to supply more security forces.

Colombian police in cooperation with the US DEA arrested Héctor Coronel (alias “Rincón”), the man believed to be the main emissary between recently-arrested Sinaloa cartel capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC.

A high-ranking member of the Zetas cartel, Ivan Velasquez-Caballero (also known as “El Taliban” or “L50”) pled guilty to money laundering and drug charges in Texas. Velasquez was arrested in Mexico in September 2012 on various charges, including drug and weapons conspiracy, as well as kidnapping, murder, racketeering and money laundering. He was extradited to the US in November 2013.

Jesus Vincente Zambada-Niebla, a high level member of the Sinaloa cartel, pled guilty to drug charges in Chicago. Zambada-Niebla’s father, Ismael Zambada-Garcia, is believed to be the current leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Some experts had speculated that Isamel may have betrayed his former boss, the recently-arrested Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Zambada-Niebla is reportedly cooperating with US authorities, making it more likely that he – not his father – was the one who “flipped” on the former capo. Still, it is not clear whether Zambada-Niebla gave up information that helped lead to the capture of “El Chapo.”

Mexican freedom of speech organizations released a document entitled “Control of Public Space: Report on the Steps Backwards in Freedom of Expression and Association in the Present Government,” which analyzes 11 legislative initiatives and reforms “aimed at the restriction and the criminalization of social protest.” [From Proceso magazine, translated by Mexico Voices:]

Among the proposed legislations that are under scrutiny, the following laws are emphasized: the General Regulation of Public Demonstrations; the Federal Law of Telecommunications and Broadcasting; the reform initiative of the Law of Industrial Property, the Federal Author’s Rights law, and the Federal Criminal Code.

Additionally, there is the reform to article 29 of the Constitution and its statutory laws; the anti-terrorism law contained in the Federal Criminal Code, and the phone geolocalization laws set out in the National Code of Criminal Procedure.

The NGOs also looked over the initiatives for regulating demonstrations promoted in the state Congresses of San Luis Potosí, Quintana Roo, Jalisco, and the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (ALDF).

Hundreds marched in Mexico’s capital city, protesting internet censorship legislation currently being debated by the country’s congress. The legislation would allow internet service providers to “block, inhibit or reverse temporarily telecommunications signals in critical events and places for public and national security at the request of the competent authorities.”

Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gomez (alias “El Bravo”) was found dead at a factory in Sinaloa state. El Bravo was reputedly the head of security for the recently-arrested leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. El Bravo was trained at Mexico’s Military College and graduated as a second lieutenant in 1996, but was listed as a deserter in May 2004. 

Protests in the state of Oaxaca demanding government funds for public works, public safety and education programs turned violent when police moved in to control the crowd. Six police and one newspaper photographer were injured and 38 demonstrators were arrested.

A man ran over and seriously injured five teachers in the capital of Michoacán state, who were maintaining a blockade as part of a demonstration for education reform. Police pursued the suspect to his home and subdued him after a shoot-out. 

After denying knowledge of the incident, Mexican officials have now confirmed an “unintended border crossing [into the US] by two members of the Mexican Army” on January 26 of this year, but stressed that it was nothing more than a mistake. Previous reports have hinted that the incursion may have been evidence of cooperation between Mexican security forces and drug trafficking groups.

To Watch

According to a report from the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program, violence against women is on the rise in Mexico and Central America. The report blames “increased militarization, due in large part to the war on drugs”; “widespread corruption and complicity with organized crime”; and “discrimination and misogyny inherent in Latin American culture” for the increase.

Cyber crime is on the rise in Mexico. According to the head of Mexico’s Scientific Police Division, Ciro Humberto Ortiz Estrada, criminals made an estimated $3 billion from “cyber kidnapping” in 2013, up from $2 billion in 2012. “Cyber kidnapping” involves “taking hostage” the computer systems and databases of businesses and demanding payment for users to regain access. A 2011 survey by McAffee estimated that up to 80 percent of Mexican participants had been subject to cyber extortion.

Farmers in Mexico who previously grew marijuana appear to be replacing cannabis crops with opium poppies, potentially in response to a price drop in the marijuana market. According to the DEA, Mexico is now the top supplier of heroin to the US.  

Armed gangs are robbing mango producers in Oaxaca. Farmers say that the situation has grown worse in recent years, especially in the municipalities of Chahuites and Zanatapec. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s top mango-producing regions.

According to Sonora’s Secretary of Public Safety Ernesto Munro Palacio, former DEA and FBI agents as well as specialists from Colombia and Israel will assist in the training of 500 cadets for the National Mexican Gendarmerie.

During a recent diplomatic visit by French President Francois Hollande, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and his Mexican counterpart Jose Antonio Meade signed an agreement of cooperation between the countries to support the Gendarmerie.

Extra

Vocativ takes a look at Cartel involvement in human smuggling and the rise in the number of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border into the US, many of whom are fleeced by traffickers and abandoned. Mexican authorities recently found 370 children in the course of just one week who had been abandoned by traffickers.

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