Understanding Michoacán’s Grupos de Autodefensa

Note: Dr. Gabriella Sánchez is a postdoctoral researcher at Monash University’s Border Crossing Observatory who has written about immigration enforcement, border crossings, human smuggling and trafficking. She is originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, which has emerged in the news lately in a conflict involving self-defense groups, criminal organizations and Mexican military and law enforcement. We asked her for her thoughts on the local roots of Michoacán’s current conflict.

Graphic images of tattooed, armed men wearing ski masks; of burn-down trucks along highways and of military vehicles occupying quaint towns afflicted by the alleged battles among drug trafficking organizations and vigilantes, have recently dominated the coverage of the violence in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

The state has been in the news lately given a series of violent events in what is known as Tierra Caliente, a region of this Southwestern state along the Pacific Coast. In mid-January, members of the Mexican military allegedly shot civilians who were attempting to defend the towns of Nueva Italia and Antunez from an incursion from drug traffickers, leaving at least three people dead. Protests and violent reactions ensued.

The people of Tierra Caliente, as in other regions throughout Michoacán, have been involved in generation-long conflicts over the control of natural resources and the intervention of corporations that exploit them – often illicitly. Many of these conflicts – and the struggles of community members to preserve and defend their lands – precede the presence and the activities of other groups or organizations in the state (namely, groups involved in drug trafficking operations such as La Familia Michoacana  and the ensuing Knights of Templar). As early as the 1980s, ejidatarios (those living and working on communal lands) and other concerned community members would head deep into the mountains’ forests in order to protect them from night time logging incursions.

Yet most reports on the current state of violence in Michoacán – a region under strain by high levels of outmigration, decreasing economic growth and weakened state powers— have until now failed to acknowledge the historical context surrounding the emergence of the Grupos de Autodefensa, favoring instead sensationalistic images and superficial analysis that characterize these community-based movements as violent, predatory  and  dangerous, while justifying their repression, as exemplified by January’s events.

The recent wave of violence involve the latest efforts on the part of local communities to prevent the illicit exploitation of water, land and forests, and the acts of violence that their members have been subjected to by multiple parties – not just the feared members of criminal groups, but also large corporations, the military and other state agencies of control.  The Catholic Church, primarily through Apatzingán’s bishop, has become a welcome interlocutor. Social media has also been an important vehicle for auto-defensas to avoid the media’s noise. Community responses will continue, and their impact at creating new forms of authority and control deserve close attention. While forecasts of civil war or widespread violence are premature, a closer, empirically-based analysis of the events taking place in Michoacán is needed in order to map the wider, even global significance of the emergence of local groups defending their land and resources.


The IBWC and climate change

When I taught international relations I often referred to a great model for other nations that the U.S and Mexico invented: the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).  The IBWC was born when the U.S. and Mexico converted the old International Boundary Commission–which had completed surveys to determine the border and still maintained the border monuments between the two nations–into the more powerful and modernized International Boundary and Water Commission IBWC to adjudicate the 1944 water treaty they had just completed.Today we know so much more about water issues and it’s time for another revision.

At the time it was written, the treaty was the most forward-leaning water treaty in the world in anticipating eventual water shortages and issues. But when the treaty was written to demarcate the waters it did so following a particularly wet period in the southwest. The data used then was the only record of precipitation that we had, so we used it since we knew so little about tree ring and other data sets. We have not since seen a similar wet era since, and forecasts show even drier years ahead under climate change scenarios.

In fact, a few years ago while preparing a paper I accessed the latest models and judged that the U.S. would not meet its treaty obligations to Mexico on the Colorado River about once every three years. By the time the paper was published the likelihood was 9 of 10 years and we approach the first declared and negotiated shortage today.

The IBWC operates with ad hoc and local Technical Advisory Committees and local Citizen Forums (I served on the San Diego forum a decade ago). Neither is permanent or empowered. What has been advocated–and which is something I again call for–is a permanent Science Advisory Board that can sift through local, regional and national water and other environmental data and provide policy options for both sides when it comes to their shared waters and futures. Such a fix is easy, immediate in benefit and overdue.

Robert Pastor

American University Professor Robert Pastor, a friend and colleague to many of us working on issues relating to North America, passed away last week after a long battle with cancer. Bob was very respected for his tremendous body of work on North America and Latin America; his most recent book, The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future was simply the latest in a long and impressive list of publications. His advice and insights were always helpful and came from broad and deep experience. His colleagues, friends and former students were amazed at his tenacity and work ethic up until the very end of his life. For a full accounting of his interesting life—including his time as President Carter’s national security advisor on Latin American and Caribbean affairs—we highly recommend reading the Washington Post’s remarkable obituary. Rest in peace, Bob Pastor.

NARP Comments on the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue

The U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue was inaugurated in Mexico City this past September by Vice President Joe Biden and Mexican Secretary of Finance Luis Videgaray and represents a concerted effort by the governments of the United States and Mexico to focus on the two nations’ enormous economic relationship, which now totals over a half trillion dollars annually in two-way trade of goods and services. The North American Research Partnership took advantage of an opportunity provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce to submit formal comment on the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue and its initial work plan.

The work plan’s three pillars are Promoting Competitiveness and Connectivity; Fostering Economic Growth, Productivity and Innovation, and Partnering for Regional and Global Leadership. In general we emphasized four principal points which we have summarized below:

a. Keep the big picture in mind. Economic security is real security. From the U.S. perspective, the raison d’être for the HLED is stated clearly in the Federal Register notice itself: “Mexico represents a critical strategic ally and partner of the United States.”
b. This effort will require numerous different types of expertise and a new way to work. This is a big challenge and calls for a type of “whole of government” (interagency) work for which there is no readily available and unanimously agreed upon, successful model. Other binational processes (Border 2020 and the 21st Century Border Management Executive Steering Committee) offer interesting lessons and ideas for the HLED.
c. Outreach will be key to the success or failure of the HLED. Stakeholders, policymakers and citizens need to understand the work of the HLED to appreciate its importance. Outreach on international trade is particularly challenging because as a topic it is simultaneously politically difficult, abstract and highly detailed, an unfortunate combination in public policy. Such a high-level dialogue will necessarily need to support and hear input from local- and state-level groups on a continuing basis; as such the HLED should consider a range of robust formal and informal mechanisms for outreach to these groups.
d. Selecting and communicating progress on real metrics will help the HLED and the two nations build better policy on economic engagement. Vice President Biden’s encouragement to reach two billion dollars per day in crossborder trade in 10 years is an ambitious but easily grasped starting point. Keep it simple.

We focused additional comments on specific topics within the second pillar, Fostering Economic Growth, Productivity, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation, which we look forward to sharing in future posts.

U.S.-Mexico Tourism and Taxes in the Media

Tourism is an underestimated economic driver for the U.S. and Mexico that tends to be taken for granted somewhat in the broader binational discussion. Two recent media reports highlight its importance. Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat recently sought to draw out potential impacts to border communities from the Mexican government’s doing away with the preferential tax status of the border zone. On January 1, the federal value added tax was raised to the standard 16% after a decades-long policy of a reduced 11% rate in Mexico’s border region. As Spagat concludes, this is essentially an added incentive for Mexican crossborder shoppers to make their purchases in San Diego, El Paso, Tucson, Brownsville and other U.S. border communities rather than at retailers on the Mexican side of the border (retailers in the U.S. often have other advantages, including intense competition, generous return policies, and greater variety, particularly in apparel and electronics). Spagat quotes statistics from the University of Arizona’s widely cited 2008 study on the economic impact of Mexican visitors to Arizona; as the report notes, just over 48% of sales tax revenue in Santa Cruz County in southern Arizona are generated from sales to crossborder Mexican shoppers. This is a remarkable level of dependence on retail sales to Mexican consumers; some in southern Arizona believe that the real figure is even higher. As the Arizona Republic recently pointed out, policymakers at the local level throughout Arizona have become so interested in the potential economic value of Mexican shoppers that the Maricopa Association of Governments is spearheading an effort to include the entire state within the “border zone” (which currently extends 75 miles north of the border).

We have pointed out the importance of Mexican tourists to the U.S. economy at various times, including our March 2012 study, “Realizing the Full Value of Tourism from Mexico to the United States,” which we presented at an interagency meeting at the White House on travel and tourism to the United States. With the complete numbers for 2012 finally out, Mexico again tops the list of destinations for U.S. tourists, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out on January 1 in an article featuring the latest statistics on the issue from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Although the numbers of U.S. tourists to Mexico slipped somewhat in 2011 and 2012, Mexico still stands at the top of the list, ahead of Canada by a good eight million trips annually.

Mayors, Legislators, Governors and Trade Diplomacy in North America

The last couple weeks have brought some interesting news of state and local officials working on improving trade relations with Mexico. Today the San Diego Union Tribune reported on a trade delegation to Tijuana by California State Senator Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), Assemblymember Travis Allen, (R-Huntington Beach), and Assemblymember Rocky Chavez (R-Carlsbad) and retired state senator (and NARP board member!) Denise Moreno Ducheny from San Diego.  Other stories have included Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s recent visit to Mexico City to meet with officials there, including Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade as well as a remarkably detailed Arizona Republic Fact Check of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s recent comments about the economic impact to Phoenix of air travelers from Mexico. And Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s recent signing of an agreement with the state of Mexico to work together on issues that includes not only tourism but also manufacturing, mining and education is interesting for a number of reasons (perhaps chief among them that Nevada’s trade with Mexico has historically been so focused on Mexican tourism to the state).

The international impact of policies taken by state and local officials in North America is of particular interest to the North American Research Partnership as we analyze what works and what doesn’t work with the “bottom-up” models of governance and hence international engagement that are so strong in the West and Southwest.

State of Border Considered

NARP has unveiled and discussed the State of the Border Report to continental and national audiences but is taking both the report and its implications locally. I spoke with local decision makers when I presented the report at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) borders committee meeting last Friday in San Diego. Local actors understand the border better than the federal capitals and can often interpret and even design optimum solution sets. The comprehensive approach to border issues that NARP affords helps avoid unintended consequences.

Energy Integration

So, I also shared a panel with ex-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson last week (you can read a recap and watch the full event video here). I was advocating for a North American greenhouse gas exchange strategy so that when North America becomes a energy exporter we will have accommodated the climate threat. But the Secretary-Ambassador-Governor had a few interesting points. He was imagining a NAFTA for energy and a continental renewable portfolio standard (RPS). After all, he was Secretary when OPEC wanted $10/barrel. He believes Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has the “right stuff” to reform PEMEX and only through common standards and policies can we achieve a common grid with our neighbors.

I was impressed.

Border Management

Yesterday I shared the stage with Prof. Robert Pastor, the intellectual father of the big idea of North America and Consul David Fransen from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to talk about how broken security processing is at the ports of entry are since we have prioritized investment almost exclusively to the distances between the ports over economic security. Among the ideas I shared from the Trilateral Border Symposium we held in the spring were:

  • A common external security perimeter
  • A common customs union and tariff
  • A common greenhouse gas emission reduction credit exchange
  • A common infrastructure investment fund.

We have a common future, so why not arrive there together?

Rick Van Schoik to speak at NPI tomorrow on North American energy


The possibility of North American energy self-sufficiency, aka security, through interdependence is as elusive today as it was in the past, the recently discovered reserves and technologies developed notwithstanding. One of the more active portfolios of both the North American Research Partnership and the US-Mexico Border Research Partnership is on energy. On Wed, July 24 Rick Van Schoik, director of NARP’s energy portfolio and Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute, will share insights as respondents to Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy for President Clinton when he speaks at an event in Washington sponsored by the New Policy Institute. Rick will talk about past failed energy initiatives across one or more borders and about eventual possible mechanisms  for moving forward on siting, environmental review, finance, and international permitting of energy projects and transmission infrastructure with emphasis on renewable and other clean energy sources.  Among the options he will describe is a regional/international greenhouse gas offset and reduction (RIGOR) program for North America. You can RSVP for the event here.