Mexican Army, Self-Defense Forces Clash

Conflicts between the Mexican army and civilian self-defense organizations erupted this week in the Pacific coastal states of Guerrero and Michoacan. On Monday, August 5, more than 3,000 inhabitants of the Costa Chica region of Guerrero blockaded a rural highway and effectively prevented scores of  soldiers from leaving the zone. The confrontation flared after the army briefly detained five members of the Citizen Security and Justice System (SSJC), a state-recognized policing force that grew out of the mass uprisings against delinquency earlier this year.

Soldiers detained the five SSJC members at a military checkpoint in the community of El Pericon after a search revealed prohibited weapons, according to an army officer in charge. Identified as Major Gonzalez, the officer was quoted as saying that the men violated an agreement whereby the SSJC would not possess weapons reserved exclusively for the armed forces. Reportedly, soldiers confiscated an Uzi submachine gun, four .45 caliber and 9 mm pistols and two shotguns. Generally, ownership of firearms larger than .22 caliber guns and shotguns is illegal in Mexico.

The Guerrero state government of Governor Angel Aguirre backed the military version of events in El Pericon,  also contending that the five SSJC members violated an agreement to not “leave their territories armed and carry high-caliber weapons.”

But the incident mushroomed when residents of El Pericon and other communities mobilized in support of the SSJC, accusing the local military detachment of collaborating with delinquent groups. Residents then claimed to have discovered torture equipment behind the soldiers’ encampment.

Bruno Placido Valerio, leader of the Guerrero State Union of Peoples and Organizations (UPOEG), the mass organization that forms the backbone of the SSJC, demanded a thorough investigation of the torture allegations and soldiers’ possible collaborations with criminal bands.

“After we’ve been here for six months, delinquents want to create a second front, now with the support of the army,” Placido said. “The people confirm that soldiers are colluding with (delinquents). How is this possible…?”

The UPOEG/SSJC pulled back on the highway blockade following a 36-hour stand-off, allowing soldiers the possibility of leaving. However, by Tuesday, August 6, the conflict spread to other regions of Guerrero when about 1,500 members of the community police led by the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) staged temporary highway blockades in at least five other municipalities in support of El Pericon and against army harassment. The CRAC protestors also declared opposition to the energy, education and tax reforms promoted by the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto and its political allies in the Pact for Mexico, and demanded an integral development plan for their poverty-stricken region.

Separately, a group of 200 UPOEG members stormed the town hall of Tierra Colorada, a rural community north of Acapulco, voicing support for the self-defense movement as well as demanding the resignation of Mayor Elizabeth Gutierrez and her cabinet for alleged neglect of community needs.

For the first time, the UPOEG and the CRAC, which have been divided on important issues,  acted in concert for common interests. Both organizations fear state and federal authorities intend to disarm their respective community police forces, which were established to fill a security vacuum, and absorb them into a state-run rural police system.

“We are formed by the people and answerable to them,” said Miguel Vitrago Reyes, coordinator of the community police in Huamuxtitlan. “We don’t owe the government, and we will continue working in the same way as our rules establish.”

Both the UPOEG and the CRAC are rooted in indigenous communities that have the right to create their own security and justice systems under Guerrero state law. Nonetheless, the legality of self-defense organizations in mestizo communities where the UPOEG is also active is murkier.

In the neighboring state of Michoacan, meanwhile, the Mexican army swooped into the indigenous Nahua coastal community of Aquila after members of a self-defense group there detained a soldier. No gunfire was reported, but the atmosphere was said to be tense. Units from the Mexican navy, air force, federal police and the Michoacan state police reportedly participated in the August 5 operation.

This week’s conflicts between the Mexican army and self-defense forces, which have different histories and trajectories, add to the volatile political and social panorama in Guerrero and Michoacan. Also raising the political temperature was the August 5 assassination of Raymundo Velazquez Flores, leader of the Emiliano Zapata Revolutionary Agrarian League, who was found executed along with two other members of the group in Coyuca de Benitez near Acapulco.

Velazquez’s murder was widely condemned by political leaders and activists from social movements. His killing followed the recent murders of Arturo Hernandez Cardona and three other members of the  Iguala Popular Unity organization in Guerrero.

“It’s very regrettable that social activists are criminalized,” said federal legislator Rosario Merlin Garcia of the PRD party. “If they don’t stop hunger and disease, they might have to kill a lot more Mexicans.”

Negotiations between state and federal officials and leaders of the Guerrero self-defense movement were proceeding as the week drew toward a close.

Sources: La Jornada, August 8, 2013. Article by Sergio Ocampo. El Sur, August 6, 7 and 8, 2013. Articles by Lourdes Chavez, Zacarias Cervantes, Rosalba Ramirez Garcia, Luis Blancas, Fernando Hernandez, Francisco Magana,  and editorial staff. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), August 5, 6, 7, 8, 2013. Articles by Margena de la O, Hector Briseno, Citlal Giles Sanchez, Salvador Cisneros Silva, Hercilia Castro, and Rodolfo Valadez. El Universal, August 5 and 6, 2013. Articles by Dalia Martinez and Adriana Covarrubias. Proceso/Apro, August 5 and 6, 2013. Articles by Ezequiel Flores Contreras and editorial staff.

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