One year into his term, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s cultivated image of a rebooted anti-narco effort is starting to look like more of the same. Since May, he has deployed thousands of army troops and federal police to the central-western state of Michoacán, seeking to regain control of large rural areas effectively under the control of the Knights Templar narco gang. His predecessor Felipe Calderón won widespread criticism for his militarization of the “drug war,” and Calderón’s home state of Michoácan was a special focus. A brief lull in violence after Peña Nieto again flooded the state with troops was broken this week as presumed Knights Templar gunmen attacked federal police checkpoints on Michoacán’s coastal highway, or ambushed police convoys—or fought back when the police attacked the narcos’ own roadblocks. The death toll has reached 29 over the past three days.
Although all the dead in the shoot-outs with the police forces were reported to be narco gunmen, the civil population in Michoacán is also under attack. When some 200 residents of the town of Los Reyes held a public demonstration to protest the Knights Templar’s extortion rackets and general reign of terror on July 15, unknown gunmen opened fire on the march, leaving five dead.
Citizen vigilantism and uprisings against corrupt authorities may also prompt a response from federal forces. On July 24, the coastal village of Aquila became the latest Michoacán municipality to have its administrative offices occupied by an armed citizen militia calling itself the “community police,” who draped the building with a banner reading “For a free Aquila.” Hours later, army troops arrived in the village, establishing themselves in the central square, and tense stand-off began. The nearby village of Aguililla has been under the control of a well-armed “community police” force since a local uprising late last month.
An Associated Press analysis widely quoted in the Mexican media warns that Michoacán could be “the graveyard of Pena Nieto’s pledge to reduce drug violence.” Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior scholar at Columbia University who studies organized crime in Latin America, is quoted. “They are challenging the Mexican state on an equal footing,” he said, refering to the Knights Templar. “You have state vacuums in Mexico that are not covered by any kind of institutional framework…and the cartels are moving in to capture pieces of the state.” (Revolucíon 3.0, July 25; AP, APRO, BBC News, La Jornada Michoacán, July 24)
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