Mexico's Drug War: Substantial Changes Seen In Michoacan

Apr 17 2014, 10:53am CDT | by

Editor’s Note: This week’s Security Weekly summarizes our quarterly Mexico drug cartel report, in which we assess the most significant developments of the first quarter of 2014 and provide a forecast for the second quarter of the year. The report is a product of the coverage we maintain through our Mexico Security Memo, quarterly updates and other analyses that we produce throughout the year as part of the Mexico Security Monitor service.

By Tristan Reed
Mexico Security Analyst/>

During the first quarter of 2014, Mexican authorities managed to kill or capture a substantial number of high-level leaders of Mexican organized criminal groups, including top Sinaloa Federation leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera on Feb. 22 at a hotel in Mazatlan, Sinaloa state. In an unusually high tempo of operations, the Mexican military managed to capture several other Sinaloa leaders who operated under Guzman or Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, another top-tier Sinaloa Federation leader. By the beginning of 2014, the Sinaloa Federation was already struggling to adapt to a series of significant leadership losses during the last quarter of 2013. Its losses during the first quarter of 2014 thus compound its pre-existing problems.

Meanwhile, the efforts of federal troops and the self-defense militias in Michoacan resulted in the death or capture of the bulk of the Knights Templar’s top-tier leaders. Since the second half of January 2014, three out of four of the most prominent Knights Templar leaders have been eliminated, as have many of their lieutenants.

The arrest of Guzman is not likely to alter any of the trends during the second quarter addressed in our 2014 annual cartel report. By contrast, the massive losses for the Knights Templar in such a short period will likely trigger substantial shifts in organized crime dynamics in Michoacan, including the expansion of old or the creation of new, smaller criminal groups into the void left by the Knights Templar. Given that the Knights Templar were expanding domestically and internationally up to the end of 2013, the impact of successful federal operations against the group could be felt beyond southwestern Mexico. This is particularly likely in northeastern Mexico, where the Knights Templar helped the Gulf cartel defend its territory from Los Zetas. If this evolution does not occur during the second quarter, it probably will later in 2014.

Michoacan

Federal authorities could not have racked up such rapid successes against Knights Templar leaders during the first quarter were it not for the presence of self-defense militias in Michoacan state. The self-defense militias first emerged in February 2013 and have since expanded their operations to more than 26 of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities (and over half the state’s geographic area). Even so, Mexico City has decided it cannot tolerate the existence of well-armed and widely operating militias willing to supplant government authority.

At the end of 2013, self-defense militias in Michoacan had already expanded into nearly a dozen municipalities as part of a strategy of ejecting the Knights Templar from specific areas and then holding onto the newly won territory. With the expansion, the militias challenged government authority in many towns by taking charge of public safety, often detaining local law enforcement authorities whom the militias viewed as having links to the Knights Templar. The growing presence of the militias presented yet another substantial security challenge for Mexico City in the state, particularly as the militias expanded around the transportation routes surrounding the port city of Lazaro Cardenas. Rising levels of organized crime-related violence, the continued expansion of well-armed militias into much of the state and disruptive violence such as the Oct. 27 attacks on Federal Electricity Commission installations in Michoacan prompted several deployments of federal police and the Mexican military to Michoacan throughout 2013 (in addition to drawing international media coverage of Michoacan’s security woes).

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In January 2014, Mexico City created the Commission for Security and Integral Development in Michoacan, led by Alfredo Castillo, to oversee its security strategy in Michoacan, coordinate federal and state security forces and purportedly address political, social and economic issues in the state. One of the commission’s first actions was to bring the various militias, operating in a coordinated manner, into an agreement with the federal and state government Jan. 27. Among other things, the self-defense groups agreed to integrate with federal troops by joining the Rural Defense Corps, a longtime auxiliary force of the Mexican army. In addition, the agreement provided Mexico City with greater oversight over the inner workings of the militias and their leadership. However, no substantial integration of militia members into the Rural Defense Corps had occurred by the end of the first quarter.

By contrast, the agreement did succeed in fostering a great deal of cooperation between the militias and federal troops with regard to targeting the Knights Templar. The combined efforts of the self-defense militias and federal troops against the Knights Templar yielded substantial gains. The day of the agreement, federal troops captured Dionisio “El Tio” Loya Plancarte, the first of the top Knights Templar leaders to fall in the first quarter. On March 9, the Mexican military killed Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno Gonzalez, the founder of the Knights Templar, in Tumbiscatio, Michoacan state. Moreno’s death occurred as a result of substantial militia operations in the city just days before. On March 31, top leader Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte Solis was killed during a military operation in Colon, Queretaro state. Of the Knights Templar’s best-known leaders, only Servando “La Tuta” Gomez Martinez remains at large.

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Significantly, the spread of the militias in Michoacan has greatly hindered the group’s mobility in the state. This greatly diminished the operational capabilities of the Knights Templar during the first quarter, lessening its hold over profitable criminal activities in the state. And this in turn has created a power vacuum, allowing smaller independent crime groups, including the remnants of the Knights Templar, to emerge. (The second quarter will likely see these lower-tier groups continue to emerge.)

In the weeks following the March 31 death of Plancarte, the federal commission overseeing Michoacan’s security developments called for the disarmament of the militias because, the commission said, the Knights Templar had largely been defeated. Self-defense militia movement spokesman Jose Mireles rejected calls to disarm, citing the persistence of the Knights Templar under Gomez and other lower-level bosses.

The federal government then set a deadline of May 10 for the militias to voluntarily disarm or face forced disarmament. In response, the militia movement threatened blockades. Various militias could erect these, presumably on major roads in Michoacan, should the federal government not satisfy militia demands. These include the release of 100 incarcerated militia members, the killing or capture of remaining Knights Templar members in the state, the restoration of the rule of law in Michoacan and the recognition of the self-defense militias’ right to exist.

The commission and militia leaders from 20 municipalities struck a new deal April 14. Though the agreement followed a recent ultimatum by the federal government that the militias voluntarily disarm by May 10 or have federal troops forcibly disarm them, the new deal’s 11 points do not call for a total disarmament. Instead, the militias accepted an offer to be incorporated into a Rural State Police body beginning May 11. Under the terms of the deal, self-defense militias will turn in “high-caliber” weapons. The deal calls for all remaining militia arms to be registered with the federal government. The April 14 agreement also allows militia members to join the Rural Defense Corps, just as the agreement signed Jan. 27 did.

According to Security and Integral Development Commissioner Alfredo Castillo, the agreement means that self-defense militias in Michoacan will disappear by May 11. Whether the agreement will actually produce that outcome remains unclear, given that it allows the self-defense militia members to continue to bear arms and does not specify just how the militias will be formally integrated into government-controlled security forces. Moreover, divisions within the militia movement could threaten the viability of the April 14 agreement.

The April 14 agreement highlights the federal government’s intent to halt the expansion of vigilante groups in Mexico. The challenge to governmental authority apparently has been deemed greater than the benefits the militias bring of reducing the need for military involvement in the fight against drug-trafficking organizations.

To this end, Mexico City has sought to bring the militias to the bargaining table. But implementing any deal will face a challenge from increased divisions among the militias. Although at present the militias mostly act in concert, the movement comprises various militias operating in towns among dozens of municipalities.

Internal discord has already emerged, albeit currently isolated to a few personalities within the militias. Since the beginning of 2014, various self-defense militia leaders have accused one another of belonging to organized crime and have said that organized crime is infiltrating their groups. Though such claims are impossible to verify, their existence underscores concerns among self-defense militias that their members may be interested in taking over criminal enterprises left by the power vacuum that emerged from the Knights Templar’s decline. If these concerns become reality, the government will face an even more fractured militia landscape during negotiations for their incorporation into federal forces.

If the broader movement fractures during the second quarter, the likelihood of any negotiated settlement between the militias and the government greatly diminishes, given the lack of any coordinated leadership. However, divisions within the militia movement would pose a diminished threat to Mexico City. If the movement remains largely intact yet fails to honor the April 14 agreement, it is possible that Mexico City would still delay any efforts to disarm the militias during the second quarter. This would provide more time for the militias to fragment, thus reducing their collective ability to challenge state authority while obviating the need for any military confrontation. However, such a decision would risk further proliferation of the militias, bringing in more weaponry and bolstering their ranks. The longer Mexico City allows the militias to expand without any permanent resolution that brings the militias fully into the fold or disarms them, the greater the threat militias will pose to government authority.

In the second quarter, the fracturing of organized crime in Michoacan will likely lead to more organized crime-related violence as these smaller groups move, hampering federal and state government bids to improve security in the state. And although Knights Templar operational capabilities in Michoacan have declined, the group will still retain a substantial presence in the state during the second quarter. Violence between rival criminal organizations and between criminal organizations and the self-defense militias will combine with the continued presence of the Knights Templar to keep the state unstable.

Editor’s Note: The full version of our quarterly cartel update is available to clients of our Mexico Security Monitor service./>/>

Read more: Mexico’s Drug War: Substantial Changes Seen in Michoacan | Stratfor
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