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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition