Michoacán is a battlefield between cartels, seeking to finance themselves through extortion, kidnappings, and theft from local inhabitants. Although citizens have shared the location of criminals with the authorities, there is seldom a response. Sick and tired of this situation, and claiming government inaction, several towns in Michoacán and other southern states, have seen a rise in armed civilian groups referred to as self-defence forces (or ‘autodefensas’). José Manuel Mireles Valverde, general coordinator of the Citizen Council of Self-Defence (‘Consejo Ciudadano de Autodefensa’) of Michoacán and community leader of Tepalcatepec, announced that the groups will not put down their arms until the federal authorities have handed over the heads of the seven leaders of the “Caballeros Templarios” cartel, with DNA proof.
Mireles says that “the murder of two young women who had been kidnapped, one of them 7 months pregnant, was the trigger for the inhabitants of Tancítaro [Michoacán] to rise up against criminal harrassment”. A group of the self-defence forces from Michoacán’s municipalities, consisting of around 800 people, were ambushed, presumably by the Caballeros Templarios, with bombs and grenades when they tried to enter into the community. This uprising left at least four dead. Then, around 400 self-defence force members took control of the municipality.
Hipólito Mora, leader or one of the armed civilian groups, said “we want all Mexico to rise up (in arms), but especially Michoacán, where [the gangs of organised crime] are affecting us the most”.
Upon the impending arrival of the self-defence forces, the municipal police of Tancítaro fled, because “they’re all involved” in organised crime, according to Mora. In fact, one of the criminals detained by the forces in February revealed that “the person ordering the operations against the gangs is the same who warns them about the operations”. He emphasised “we need the state government to disarm the municipal police because they are clearly in cahoots with organised criminals, who continue to kill our people”. He also affirmed that “all the mayors of the state are also involved, some through convenience and others through fear” and that “at this moment we plan to continue our advance to Peribán, Los Reyes and Uruapan, after which we will decide what to do next”.
The self-defence forces are organised in 19 municipalities and more than 45 communities in Tierra Caliente (a vast, hot, lowland region in the west of Mexico surrounded by mountains and without contact with the sea). These communities are “clean” of criminal groups and the forces aim to spread their operations to other communities affected by organised crime. They use customised armoured vehicles seized from the criminals they have fought. At the end of October, self-defence forces tried to occupy another criminal stronghold, but were prevented from doing so by the federal armed forces who have been deployed in the area in their thousands since May. “We need the support of the Federal Police and the Army because, without them, everything is more difficult”, affirmed Mora.
Another community leader, known as Comandante Tilín, said “this is the reality in Michoacán. It’s called bravery. We fight for freedom. We fight against organised crime and bad government. While many sleep peacefully in their homes, their only worries about the success of the national football team, the people are battling to the death against the drug cartels… The self-defence forces… are the real heros, fighting a war for survival every day”.
Mireles upheld the view that “the people are doing jobs that the government should be doing; for that reason they don’t say anything to us, because they’re ashamed that we’re doing their job for them. We arrive in support when we’re needed, but it’s the communities who fight their own battles. …We aren’t forming cartels, nor are we funded by any. …We are seeking the support [of the government forces] so the state can finally put an end to the endemic violence. We want clean elections!”