Mexico in new anti-drug military operation
22 May 2013, 12:06
Coalcoman - Mexico's government pledged on Tuesday to keep thousands of troops in the western state of Michoacan until peace is restored in this region tormented by violent drug cartels.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong held a meeting of the national security team in the state capital Morelia with local officials to discuss a crime wave that led some towns to create vigilante groups.
Officials said around 4 000 army soldiers and marines and 1 000 federal police officers were deployed on Monday. Osorio Chong said the forces would leave once security conditions have improved and the state government can hold its own.
"We are here with the goal of bringing peace back to Michoacan, but also with the commitment to help out and support public policies for the development of Michoacan," he told a news conference.
Michoacan was the first state to see troops when former president Felipe Calderon decided to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers across the country to crack down on drug cartels in 2006.
But gang violence surged throughout Mexico, leaving 70 000 people dead in its wake when Calderon left office in December, and a powerful new cartel, the Knights Templar, emerged in Michoacan.
Gang violence hot spot
Osorio Chong insisted that the strategy ordered by President Enrique Pena Nieto will be different than his predecessor's, with a single command, close co-ordination between various authorities, the use of intelligence, and a development programme.
Pena Nieto took office in December vowing to switch the focus toward reducing the levels of violence. He has since launched a crime prevention programme but he says troops will stay on the ground until the murder rate goes down.
Fed up with crime, vigilante groups have appeared in recent months and clashed with the Knights Templar cartel, notably in the Tierra Caliente region known as a hot spot of gang violence in the state of 4.3 million people.
The violence and checkpoints manned by gunmen scared off companies from delivering basic goods to some communities, but Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos said troops were freeing up roads to allow people, merchandise and vehicles to get through.
"To guarantee citizens' safety, we must have a presence and free them of this cancer, which is the criminal organisations that have gained strength in the region," General Cienfuegos said, adding that civilians would be allowed to carry weapons.
The minister said the troops did not encounter any vigilante groups, which he said may have left the area or kept their weapons at home.
"This is a complex problem because there are those who are making an effort to protect the community and others who are backed, financed by other groups," Cienfuegos said.
AFP journalists encountered several military checkpoints during a drive across Michoacan.
But there were still road blocks manned by vigilante groups, with some members wearing blue shirts with the words "community police". A number of them wore masks and most were armed with rifles or handguns.
The Knights Templar say the self-defence groups are working for and getting weapons from a rival cartel, Jalisco Nueva Generacion, which is believed to be allied with the Sinaloa syndicate led by Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The cartel cut off food deliveries to punish communities that created self-defence groups.
"Things are calm now because the military forces are here," Rafael Garcia, the mayor of the Tierra Caliente village of Coalcoman, said. "But this doesn't guarantee anything, because operations come and go."
Garcia said more than 200 residents of the farming community took up arms last week to fight off extortion. He insisted that vigilantes had the total support of most of the 9 500 inhabitants and that they won't put down their weapons unless the authorities provide proper security.
Drug gangs have existed for decades in this western state, where they grow marijuana and opium poppies and produce synthetic drugs in makeshift labs before shipping them to the United States.
"We have lived through 12 years of extortion, kidnappings, abuse against our women," Garcia said. "The people want those responsible to be arrested."