Mar 16, 2014 | 13:20 GMT

6 mins read

Mexico's Gains in Michoacan Could Become a Setback

Mexico's Gains in Michoacan Could Become a Setback

In the latest in a string of counternarcotic successes for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, top Knights Templar leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed in a confrontation with Mexican authorities March 9 in Tumbiscatio, Michoacan state. Though on the surface a success, the elimination of Nazario Moreno could wind up creating additional security distractions for Mexico City as rival groups rush to fill the vacuum left in Michoacan by the Knights Templar cartel's reversals of fortune.

Throughout Mexico, military pressure continues to break organized crime groups into separate, autonomous crime networks. A number of major organized criminal group leaders have been killed or captured lately, including Los Zetas leader Miguel "Z-40" Trevino Morales and Sinaloa Federation leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera. As with Nazario Moreno, these ostensible successes gave rise to fears that power struggles will ensue. 

The death of Nazario Moreno is probably the most significant blow to the Knights Templar to date and follows a series of significant leadership and territorial losses for the Knights Templar in recent months. Since February 2013, so-called self-defense groups in Michoacan have expanded their armed campaign into areas of the state with a Knights Templar presence. Meanwhile, Mexico City expanded its own efforts targeting Knights Templar leaders and operations (efforts that are greatly aided by the self-defense groups). Such efforts have helped Mexico City effectively bring the self-defense groups into the fold through a Jan. 27 agreement between militia leaders and the federal government, providing for the integration of the militias into federal security forces.

The now-coordinated efforts of the self-defense groups and the federal government have caused substantial leadership losses for the Knights Templar since December 2013. The extent of the losses means the Knights Templar face an existential threat to their operations, potentially creating a power vacuum. This invites further incursions by another Michoacan-based organized crime group, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. The actions of another crime syndicate, or even the self-defense militias, have the potential to trigger infighting within the Knights Templar. This in turn would present greater challenges to the Mexican government and military, which already are struggling to contain rising insecurity in Michoacan.

As with most transnational criminal organizations in Mexico, the Knights Templar cartel is a conglomeration of semi-independent crime bosses. Before 2011, the Knights Templar referred to itself as La Familia Michoacana. Its leaders controlled the bulk of organized criminal activity in Michoacan state, including drug trafficking, the cultivation and production of illicit narcotics, illegal mining, extortion and the smuggling of drug precursors. At some point in 2010, violence broke out among senior leaders. At the onset of this internal conflict, the allied leaders rebranded their network the Knights Templar while a faction under Jose de Jesus "El Chango" Mendez Vargas continued with the La Familia Michoacana name. The bulk of organized criminal activity in Michoacan quickly fell under the control of the Knights Templar.

Challenges to the Knights Templar

Beginning in 2012, the Knights Templar began to feel pressure from the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. By February 2013, the Knights Templar had faced significant opposition from Michoacan self-defense militias, which had begun to expand geographically.

Though the self-defense groups' stated purpose has been to combat the Knights Templar — and they have periodically assumed control of public security in Knights Templar areas of operation — rumors that organized crime has infiltrated the militias have existed since their February 2013 debut. Reports to this effect have originated from Mexican officials, organized criminal groups and even from militia leaders themselves.

Infiltrated or not, the rapid expansion of the self-defense militias prompted several deployments of federal troops to Michoacan throughout 2013, and by 2014 the troops were heavily targeting Knights Templar leadership. The Mexican army captured Dionisio "El Tio" Loya Plancarte, a top leader and uncle to Enrique Plancarte Solis, in Morelia on Jan. 27. Plancarte Solis' faction of the Knights Templar has suffered a number of other personnel and operational losses since December. Authorities captured one of the sons of the most public top Knights Templar leader, Servando "La Tuta" Gomez Martinez, on March 5, followed four days later by Nazaro Moreno's capture.

The increasing decline of the Knights Templar has created opportunities for rival criminal organizations, members of the self-defense militia umbrella and even among lower-ranking members of the Knights Templar — who are all vying for control over criminal activities in Michoacan. In a very real sense, Mexico City's gains against the Knights Templar have paved the way for new challenges for the government in the form of a new round of insecurity in Michoacan.

Threats to Militia Cohesion

With the self-defense militias currently coordinating with the federal government, coupled with substantial progress in targeting the Knights Templar, Mexico City — at least temporarily — has a relatively good grip on the security situation in Michoacan. If the Knights Templar collapse, the self-defense militia leaders — bound together by a coordinated effort to push out the Knights Templar — will no longer have a common cause. Some militias may start pursuing separate agendas or even begin assuming control over whatever remains of Knights Templar operations. The breakup of the militias would render their agreement with the federal government meaningless, especially if they went from being an augmenting force to one that supplanted the government's authority.

Cities With Self-Defense Groups

Cities With Self-Defense Groups

Already, indications have emerged of militia infighting. A standoff between factions of self-defense militias occurred March 9 near La Ruana community in the Buenavista Tomatlan municipality, where the self-defense groups first emerged. Reportedly, 400 members loyal to one leader surrounded another leader's base, forcing him to flee by helicopter. Though reports are conflicting, some say the two were engaged in a leadership dispute. The federal government immediately sent an envoy to mediate the emerging conflict, hoping to avoid any rupturing of the self-defense militia movement. As a result, a militia leader was arrested March 11, and authorities are now seeking to disarm his faction. The March 9 incident highlights the existence of organizational cracks and personal agendas within a militia that has thus far made substantial progress in working as a cohesive organization. 

Municipalities With Self Defense Groups

Municipalities With Self Defense Groups

Mexico City ultimately hopes for the self-defense groups to gradually dissolve, leaving the federal and state governments as the only caretakers of public security. But with the Knights Templar still a potent force in Michoacan and the self-defense groups continuing to expand geographically and numerically, Mexico City wants the fading away of the militias to happen in a controlled fashion. This would give the government breathing room to cope with any new organized crime-related conflict emerging from a power vacuum caused by the dissolution of the Knights Templar leadership. A premature break within the self-defense militias or renewed organized crime-related conflicts could undo the progress Mexico City has made in Michoacan.

Editor's Note: For those interested in more in-depth coverage of Mexico's security environment, Stratfor offers the Mexico Security Monitor, a service that is geared toward organizations with operations or interests in the region.

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