MEXICO CITY — Hell seems ever more liable to bust loose in western Mexico’s Michoacan state, with heavily armed civilians squaring off against feared meth-producing gangsters who’ve had the run of rural hamlets and towns for years.
The self-defense militias, at least some of them accused of connivance with criminal rivals of the local Knights Templar gang, have been working to encircle the Templar-dominated city of Apatzingan since last summer.
That siege strategy is apparent in the above map of militia-controlled towns published by Mexico’s El Universal newspaper on Friday. Since then, the armed civilians have gained even more ground.
The militias' continued offensive in Michoacan has overshadowed gangland violence elsewhere in Mexico to become the biggest security challenge for President Enrique Peña Nieto. Proceso, Mexico's premier news magazine, this week declared Michoacan "Peña Nieto's War" on its cover.
Mocking the state governor's demands that they stop, the militias on Sunday advanced on the town of Nueva Italia, a Templar stronghold near Apatzingan. Federal security forces on Saturday had occupied Apatzingan to prevent the militiamen from trying to take control of that city of 125,000 people.
Earlier last week, the militias met resistance in nearby communities by supposed local citizens who've demanded the intervention of federal forces. Some of those anti-militia locals, who are believed to be spurred on by Templar bosses, on Thursday blockaded roads leading into the town center with commandeered buses and delivery trucks, torching a few of them.
The federal forces on Sunday also closed the expressway passing through Nueva Italia, which links Mexico City to Lazaro Cardenas, one of Mexico's primary seaports.
Analysts worry that the militia movement throws dangerous political and social elements into what officials for years have insisted is a criminal crisis. Some point to Colombia’s experience with paramilitary warlords several decades ago as an example of where Michoacan is heading.
Since preventing an armed takeover of Apatzingan last fall, the more than 6,000 troops and federal police patrolling Michoacan haven't significantly intervened against the militias.
In fact, federal officials this week made their long-suspected support for the “self-defense” groups crystal clear.
Federal police airlifted militia leader Jose Manuel Mireles to a Mexico City hospital following his injury last weekend in a light plane crash in Michoacan. Scores of federal police are guarding the top-shelf hospital where Mireles is recovering from undisclosed wounds.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio brushed off media criticism of the protection, saying that Mireles “has wounded the cartels, particularly the Templars.”
Both the Templars and the militiamen carry combat weapons — assault rifles, grenade launchers and .50 caliber sniper weapons — that all are very much illegal in Mexico.
Troops have disarmed only a single militia, in a coastal township that hosts an iron ore mine owned by a multinational corporation.
Hundreds more militiamen — ranchers, shopkeepers, laborers and lawyers — operate unimpeded across Michoacan.
Echoes of Colombia
While the rise of the militias is understandable — given the state’s years of kidnapping, extortion and other abuse by gangsters — many see a similarity between the Mexican government’s winking at them and the sanctioned creation of right-wing paramilitary forces in Colombia two decades ago.
The Colombian groups wreaked terror in the areas under their control and quickly became cocaine traffickers themselves.
“I think we’ve seen this movie,” prominent journalist Carlos Puig wrote in his regular column in Milenio newspaper. “Thus it began in Colombia.”
Meanwhile, federal and state officials have taken a far more hostile approach to militias in the neighboring state of Guerrero, which includes the resorts of Zihuatanejo, Ixtapa and Acapulco. Community police leaders there stand accused of ties to leftist movements that produced failed guerrilla groups in recent decades.
Mexican media published leaked intelligence reports linking some of Guerrero’s militias — who are more poorly armed than those in Michoacan — with the guerrillas.
Militia leaders have denied the accusations. But a handful of them have been jailed, including US citizen Nestora Salgado, a 20-year Seattle resident who emerged as community police chief last summer in her hometown, Olinala, in the heavily indigenous Guerrero mountains.
Salgado and several other militia leaders stand accused of kidnapping related to the detention of people they accused of stealing, murder and other crimes.