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.