Mexico’s last line of defence: The militia taking on the country's drug cartels... and the police officers protecting them

A vigilante militia is marching on the stronghold of The Knights Templar cartel in Michoacan, and attacking the police they accuse of protecting the gang. Can they rescue the failing state?

A convoy of pick-up trucks carrying more than 100 armed civilians descended on the small town of Nueva Italia in Michoacan, a largely rural state in south-west Mexico, this week. Equipped with bulletproof vests and automatic weapons, the group surrounded the main plaza and eventually took control of the town, exchanging fire with gunmen and local police they accused of representing The Knights Templar, an organised crime syndicate that has become a de facto authority in much of the state.

“They shot at us from two locations and the clash lasted around an hour and a half,” Jaime Ortiz, a 47-year-old farmer belonging to the militia, told the French news agency AFP, claiming that two of his comrades were wounded in the confrontation.

The militia, which describes itself as a “self-defence” group trying to protect citizens from The Knights Templar, has been advancing through southern Michoacan for several weeks en route to the city of Apatzingan, believed to be the stronghold of the syndicate. Members of the militia, which currently occupies more than a dozen towns throughout the state, have fought gun battles with local police officers whom, along with state governor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, they accuse of protecting the gang.

One resident of the state, who did not wish to be named, told The Independent: “I would say the authorities in Michoacan have long lost the right to claim they are protecting their citizens. I don’t like to see people picking up arms, I deplore violence; but we have very little confidence in the police forces under the control of the Michoacan government.”

The country’s Interior Minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, has demanded that the militia disarms and withdraws from the area. He announced the deployment of additional forces to the region, including the Federal Police and military personnel, to temporarily replace local and state police.

But Hipolito Mora, one of its leaders, said the group has no intention of disarming, and the movement would continue until leading members of The Knights Templar and their accomplices were arrested. On Tuesday, federal forces entered Apatzingan and maintain a military presence there. The Knights Templar, reportedly led by a man named Servando Gomez Martinez, aka “La Tuta”, emerged in 2010 after a split within a paramilitary defence group-turned-organised crime syndicate known as The Michoacan Family. The group participates in dozens of illicit activities from drug trafficking to illegal mining. The state has been gripped by armed conflict and a military presence ever since. Nearly 1,000 people were murdered in Michoacan in 2013.

Attacks on her family, headless animals being sent to her home and several death threats: A sure sign Anabel Hernandez is the woman the Mexican drug barons fear  

Civilian defence groups have been common in Michoacan for years. Some of the groups hail from semi-autonomous indigenous communities, many of which have long maintained their own police forces. Others operate without the permission of local governments. Some speculate whether the self-defence alliance in Michoacan has been infiltrated by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a rival of The Knights Templar. 

Michoacan has long been wracked by corruption scandals and accusations of official complicity with organised crime. Ahead of local elections in 2011, as many as 50 candidates across the state withdrew because of threats.

The recent confrontations are the latest flashpoints in Mexico’s so-called “drug war”, an armed struggle between rival criminal groups and security forces that began in the 1990s and intensified after former president Felipe Calderon launched a military crackdown in 2007.

Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, took office in December 2012 and promised a more streamlined, intelligence-based approach to fighting crime. Nevertheless, in 2013, Mexico saw over 17,000 murders, a figure roughly in line with the murder rate under Calderon and twice the rate under Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Dr Edgardo Buscaglia, president of the Citizens’ Action Institute in Mexico, who has studied the proliferation of armed groups in the country, believes that the confrontations in Michoacan are a consequence of the institutional vacuums that have permitted corruption and organised crime to flourish.

“I have no doubt that some of the community defence groups you see in Michoacan are legitimate,” he told The Independent. “But you also have groups financed by businesspeople, groups financed by municipal governments, and groups funded by rival criminal organisations.

“There are pockets of Mexico that resemble a failed state, and Michoacan is one of them,” he added. “Sending the armed forces to tackle a problem that is fundamentally caused by corruption and the lack of reliable public institutions is counterproductive. You have a weak and fragmented state in Mexico that does not have the institutional capacity to root out corruption, or provide security.”

One of the principal leaders of the self-defence movement in Michoacan, Dr Jose Manuel Mireles, a medical doctor from the town of Tepalcatepec, was rushed to hospital on Saturday after the light aircraft he was travelling in was forced to make an emergency landing, killing one passenger and injuring four others.

It has not yet been confirmed if the incident was an attempt on his life. He is expected to make a full recovery.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015