Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mexico's 'Self-Defense' Vigilantes Clash With Troops

The Mexican military’s efforts to disarm vigilante groups in Michoacan have resulted in violent clashes and left at least two dead, illustrating the pitfalls of officials’ past tolerance of the militias.

During Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong’s announcement on Monday that the federal government would assume control of security in Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente region, he called on the various “self-defense” movements in the area to stop their campaign against the Knights Templar cartel and allow the military to do the job. Federal police stepped up patrols in the region, and troops began disarming vigilante groups, El Universal reports.

Leaders of the self-defense groups were less than keen to turn over their arms to soldiers, however. Jose Mireles, the high-profile vigilante leader who is being treated in Mexico City following a plane crash earlier this month, released a series of videos in which he criticized the disarmament (albeit using frequently contradictory statements). Reuters reports that Estanislao Beltran, another vigilante leader, told local radio that laying down their weapons would put local communities in danger.

Beltran also said that security forces had fired on innocent townspeople on Monday, killing four, including an 11 year-old girl. While the Associated Press confirmed only two deaths, and spoke with relatives of a third deceased victim, the National Human Rights Commission corroborated Beltran’s figure in a press release. The defense department, for its part, has only acknowledged one civilian casualty. Other press reports yesterday placed the death toll higher. La Reforma, for instance, cited “preliminary reports from state sources” claiming that 9 civilians had been killed.

The deaths are sure to fuel criticism of the federal government’s relative lenience towards vigilante groups in Michoacan. In recent months the army and federal police have refrained from intervening with the self-defense groups’ battles with the Knights Templar, even coordinating helicopter cover and street patrols with the vigilantes. Just last week, Chong acknowledged that federal police were protecting the exclusive private hospital where Milenes is staying. “Yes, we are protecting him,” the interior minister said. “Because he is a person who has wounded the cartels, particularly the Templars.”

It now seems this honeymoon period has ended, and vigilante organizations will be placed under increased state scrutiny. Yesterday Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told reporters that prosecutors have been investigating the self-defense groups’ funding, and that their findings would be released in the coming days.

More on the public relations implications of the army/vigilante clash from the L.A. Times. The New York Times highlights the difficult position the government of Enrique Peña Nieto is in as a result of the violence, while the Wall Street Journal notes that the conflict is pitting the army against local communities, who frequently support the vigilantes.


News Briefs
  • The AP reports on the Ecuadorean government’s efforts to discredit opposition politician Martha Roldos. The smear campaign was kicked off by a report in state-owned paper El Telegrafo which leaked Roldos’ private emails to various U.S. human rights advocates and democracy promotion foundations seeking support for a new media platform in her country. Since then, President Rafael Correa has blasted her for seeking help from "the extreme North-American right," and a state-owned TV channel has reportedly begun airing spots depicting Roldos as an enemy of the state.
  • Yesterday, El Universo reported that Roldos held a press conference in response to Correa’s remarks, and to denounce the hacking of her email. Her lawyer told journalists that she would request the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to seek precautionary measures from the state on her behalf. She will also request a court to release the name of the author of the El Telegrafo report, which was published anonymously. 
  • It appears that Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro’s appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was not, strictly speaking, his only hope. In a surprise development yesterday, a Cundinamarca province judge temporarily put Petro’s removal on hold. As the BBC and Semana report, Judge Jose Armenta ruled that President Juan Manuel Santos should not execute the order to dimsiss the mayor until it could be determined whether it violated Petro’s right to political participation. The ruling has proven controversial, however, as the judge’s wife works for Bogota’s publicly-owned water company that the mayor turned trash collection services over to in 2012. As a result, judicial officials have opened a disciplinary inquiry into Armenta. Over at La Silla Vacia, Juanita Leon has a rundown of the main legal arguments in Armenta’s decision and their weaknesses, according to constitutional experts.  
  • As FARC rebels and Colombian government negotiators convened for the latest round of peace talks in Havana yesterday, the guerrilla group unveiled an outline of their proposal to reform Colombia’s drug laws. The document, which is based on a plan presented during previous negotiations in 2000, calls on the state to demilitarize drug-producing areas and regulate the cultivation and sale of illicit crops like coca leaf, poppies and cannabis. In remarks to El Tiempo, Colombian drug policy expert Daniel Mejia characterized the proposal as unrealistic, as it does not account for the violent actors farther along the production chain of illicit drugs. “[It’s] one thing to reduce repression,” said Mejia, “and another not to control or attack the drug trade, because alongside the crops are the ‘crystallizers,’ the precursor chemical routes, and the places where hostages are held.”
  • The White House has confirmed that President Barack Obama will travel to Mexico next month to attend a North American leaders' summit with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  • Following Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s state of the union speech last night, police detained two young women who threw flour in the face of Vice President Roxana Baldetti in an act of protest. The flouring has become a national incident, overshadowing Perez’s speech. El Periodico notes that Baldetti was carried out of the national theatre in a stretcher and taken to a hospital, and claimed that the flour attack triggered “conjunctivitis and high blood pressure.”
  • Polls suggest El Salvador’s presidential race is still quite close, despite a recent CIP Gallup survey giving a 12-point lead to FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren. According to a new Mitofsky survey, Ceren is actually just behind ARENA’s Norman Quijano, 31.8 to 35.5 percent.
  • The AP reports on serious shortages of newsprint paper in Venezuela, which El Nacional notes has been denounced by press freedom advocates as an indirect method of media censorship. According to the AP, editors of the country’s two largest papers -- El Nacional and El Universal -- say they have only enough paper reserves to continue publishing for the next month and six weeks, respectively.  
  • A new report on arms trafficking published by the São Paulo-based Instituto Sou da Paz and highlighted in Spain’s El Pais and BBC Mundo sheds light on the illegal arms trade in Brazil’s largest city. While just a fraction (1.6 percent) of arms seized by police in 2011 and 2012 were high-powered assault rifles, submachine guns or rifles, the report’s authors claim that over a third of these (roughly 36 percent)  came from the United States.