Vigilante Groups In Mexico Have Intimate Connections To The United States

Armed men from the Self-Defense Council of Michoacán at the entrance of Antúnez, Mexico, Jan. 14, 2014.

Armed men from the Self-Defense Council of Michoacán at the entrance of Antúnez, Mexico, Jan. 14, 2014.  (AP2014)

It may not seem like it at first glance, but the United States is deeply influencing the events in Mexico’s Michoacán state.

The vigilante groups who have taken up arms against the Knights Templar drug cartel, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, are made up of many people who have lived in the U.S., where they worked in factories or on farms before returning (or being returned) to Mexico.

People like Cuauhtémoc Espejo, who went home to Michoacán from California a few years ago and still has a “213” — the area code of Los Angeles — tattoo on his arm.

One of the lessons the returnees say they learned in the U.S. is that the rampant extortion and violence that the Knights Templars engage in could and should be fought.

“In the U.S. you can work,” Leno Miranda, a lime farmer who spent 8 years in Santa Ana, Calif., laying carpets and flooring, told the Times. “Here it had gotten to the point where [the Knights Templar] told you when you could work, what you could charge for your products, and demanded a cut. You could be selling candy on a street corner and they’d charge you.”

According to the newspaper, Michoacán is one of the top states of origin for Mexican workers in the U.S. In California there are more than 200 organizations dedicated to helping immigrants from Michoacán.

One of the top commanders in the state’s vigilante groups, José Manuel Mireles, is a medical doctor who spent a decade living in Modesto.

And some of them, also called paramilitaries, learned to handle weapons as teenagers in California street gangs.

But there’s a less obvious way that the vigilante groups are being influenced by the U.S. — money.

Fundraising marches, potluck suppers and the like in support of them have been held from California to New York.

Earlier this year, InSight Crime cited a report stating that immigrants living in California alone sent as much as $250,000 over a three-month span to help fund vigilante groups in Michoacán.

One California organizer who helps send money back, José Sandoval, told the Times, “It’s necessary that all Mexicans, not just michoacanos, send a little more money because of these criminals massacring and making their lives so difficult.”

Plus, he assured the paper, the money raised in the U.S. goes toward purchasing food and medicine, not weapons.

There have been reports that mining operations in the region pay the paramilitary groups for protection, a troubling sign at a time when the Mexican government is attempting to co-opt the vigilante groups into a rural police force.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that Mexico and Michoacán haven’t seen an end to the violence.

The Times spoke to one paramilitary, 43-year-old Ricardo García Paz, who until recently lived in L.A. He was registering his pistol at a community center — which is required for people who want to transition into the rural police.

Asked if he believed the Knights Templar were lying low, waiting for a more opportune time to reassert control, García Paz answered, grimly, “Let them try.”

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