Jan 17, 2014 | 11:47 GMT

5 mins read

Mexico's Mounting Challenge With Self-Defense Groups in Michoacan

A member of one of Mexico's self-defense groups stands guard

The emergence of self-defense groups in Michoacan state in February 2013 has greatly complicated the nature of armed conflicts in the region, where violence had previously stemmed primarily from competition between rival criminal organizations. The self-defense militias have been expanding into a coordinated body and now operate in more than a dozen municipalities. Their primary goal is to combat the Knights Templar, the dominant criminal group in the state, while taking charge of public security in each town they enter, at times by disarming local police.

The expansion of the militias, along with the increase in violence related to them and the Knights Templar, has triggered several recent deployments of federal troops to the economically important state, which is home of the strategic port city of Lazaro Cardenas and near Mexico's political and economic core. However, already struggling to contain violence related to Mexico's drug cartels elswhere in the country, Mexico is trying to subdue Michoacan's self-defense groups, limit their expansion and preserve federal authority in the state will be tightly constrained.

From Jan. 10-12, militia members entered multiple towns in the Michoacan municipalities of Paracuaro and Mugica as part of a continued "clear-and-hold" strategy, in which the self-defense groups attempt to remove Knights Templar elements and recruit new members from the local populations to take action against the cartel. The arrival of the militias triggered several clashes with the Knights Templar. The Mexican army was then deployed to disarm the militia members, but many refused to surrender their weapons. Supportive residents began blocking military advances along streets in both municipalities, eventually drawing gunfire from the military that reportedly left as many as 12 people dead. The clashes marked a substantial escalation in tensions between the Michoacan militias and federal troops, indicating the self-defense groups will not be easily persuaded to abandon their offensive.  

The Rise of the Self-Defense Groups

For nearly a year, the government has been making repeated attempts to address the deterioration of security in Michoacan state that has resulted from the ongoing violence between the self-defense groups and the Knights Templar, as well as the groups' territorial expansion. In November 2013, for example, the military took control of Lazaro Cardenas. And on Jan. 14, the government deployed a large contingent of federal troops, including military and federal police elements, to take control of public security from local law enforcement in the Michoacan towns of Apatzingan and Uruapan. Particularly concerning to the Mexican government is the persistent growth of the groups, which now pose an established threat to government authority in Michoacan and are unlikely to disband without a substantial commitment of federal troops.

Michoacan's Self-Defense Groups

Michoacan's Self-Defense Groups

The self-defense groups initially emerged in a small number of rural towns in southwestern Michoacan state in response to years of extreme violence and crime wrought by competing criminal organizations. In less than a year, the militias have proliferated, expanded both their size and territorial reach, and evolved into a coordinated body. As a result, self-defense groups now control towns in at least 15 municipalities in the state. The groups appear to have steady funding sufficient to arm members with assault rifles, tactical gear and vehicles and coordinate operational logistics across an area that now spans roughly 190 kilometers (120 miles) — though the exact sources of their funding remains unclear. And the focus of the militia operations has evolved from combatting established organized crime elements to supplanting government authority in public security matters, even by disarming local police if necessary.

The rise of the self-defense groups reflects the social consequences of the prolonged violence and the government's inability to enforce the rule of law in rural regions that historically have been difficult to control. The government in Mexico City has long been concerned about the threat of insurrections in regions outside the capital, where the lawless environment has enabled militant groups to challenge the government at various times in the country's history. This is, in part, why Mexican military doctrine focuses almost entirely on the country's interior. And since before the Mexican revolution, the government has encouraged residents in rural communities to maintain the rule of law by forming militias known as the rural guard, which have operated as auxiliaries to the military. In the early 2000s, the municipalities where the current self-defense groups emerged were home to rural guard militias tasked with combatting Los Zetas incursions. However, unlike the rural guard, the current militias thus far have been unwilling to submit to the government's authority.

Military Constraints and the Risk of Conflict

The Mexican government does not want an armed struggle with the self-defense militias; such a conflict would open a new battlefront for the military, which is already stretched thin by operations in other regions of the country that have been particularly hard hit by organized crime-related violence. Similarly, self defense groups would not welcome a direct confrontation with the federal government, since they could not hold their ground against a substantial Mexican military campaign, their recent successes notwithstanding.

Still, conflict seems likely if the government does not see a peaceful settlement as possible and the military continues to fail in its own campaign against the Knights Templar. The government cannot allow the militias to continue to expand and supplant its authority while provoking violence with criminal groups. For their part, the militias have not indicated a willingness to cease operations until the cartel has been neutralized.

Several states outside Michoacan rely strongly on federal troops for public safety, particularly in the north. Any military operation undertaken in Michoacan would need to fit into Mexico's national strategy to avoid undermining security elsewhere. On Jan. 12, for example, some 250 federal police officers in Nuevo Leon state who had been participating in Operation Northeast, a joint security operation targeting organized crime in northeastern Mexico, were transferred to Michoacan. The transfer will not significantly affect levels of violence in the northeast or in Michoacan, but removing troops from ongoing operations, rather than tapping into garrisoned forces, may reflect personnel constraints facing the government.

The government's worst-case scenario involves federal troops attempting to wage a territorial conflict with the self-defense groups while still attempting to combat rival criminal groups such as the Knights Templar and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion. Such a conflict could stifle economy activity in Michoacan state, possibly disrupting the flow of goods from the port at Lazaro Cardenas.

Militia leaders and supporters have repeatedly vowed to support the government if the Knights Templar is dismantled, indicating that the government still has room to maneuver and peacefully assert control over the self-defense groups through a negotiated disarmament. But even if a settlement were reached, federal troops would still need to find a way to deal with organized crime groups in Michoacan to truly restore security. This task has long bedeviled authorities, so the risk of a renewed militancy would probably remain. 

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