Earlier in 2014, Mexican government officials met with certain representatives of the autodefense movement, and they conditionally agreed upon May 11, 2014 as the date when autodefensas would disarm themselves and willingly become institutionalized, at least to an extent, as State Rural Police. That date has come and gone and there has been limited disarmament for several reasons. A condition of the disarmament was the defeat of the Knights Templar. The cartel is destabilized, but not defeated. For autodefense groups locked in violent struggle against enemy cartels and one another, to disarm would be suicidal. Many of those autodefense groups are in fact proxies organized, supported, and even constituted by cartels for the purpose of threatening their criminal rivals, as well as the Mexican government, should it interfere with the interests of the patron cartel. Their intended purpose is to kill and intimidate, not to disarm.
Authorities have diverted attention from the lack of disarmament by distributing Rural Police uniforms and announcements that Rural Police members will each have a small amount of ammunition (45 rounds) with which to fight the Knights Templar. In reality, most of the autodefensas’ military grade weapons have never been handed over to authorities and their ammunition supplies are unaffected by transitioning into the Rural Police. Nonetheless, differences in cartel affiliations between autodefense groups are becoming more evident to the public, based upon which ones have become Rural Police (apparently supported by the Knights Templar, H3, Viagras, and other Templar allies) and which have not (apparently supported by the Jalisco Cartel and other enemies of the Knights Templar).
The Autodefense movement: A compelling phenomenon with fleeting legitimacy
The autodefense moment’s publicly perceived legitimacy has not completely extinguished, but its days are numbered. Autodefense groups have, on occasion, engaged in violent clashes with government and state authorities they claim were acting on behalf of the Knights Templar. Nonetheless, those incidents have resulted in Mexican authorities’ prioritization of disarming the autodefensas over repressing the cartels they claim to oppose. Mexico’s government has wisely opted not to crush the autodefense movement violently. To do so would incur the wrath of Mexico’s public, which sympathizes with the cultural significance of communal autodefense, as well as those groups’ deceptively stated intentions of purifying Michoacan and other regions of the Knights Templar. Much of Mexico’s public remains unaware or unconvinced that several autodefense groups are proxies of rival cartels that desire the territory of the Knights Templar, including the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), La Familia Michoacana, and others. The Knights Templar also appears to wield a number of autodefense groups. Due in part to strategic communications accusing autodefensas of criminal activities, the perception of autodefensas as sincere community guardians is eroding. A shift in public relations will be necessary to renew public sympathy, or the autodefensas risk becoming perceived as a cause of Mexico’s problems, rather than merely a reaction to those problems.
The significance of how Mexico’s public perceives the Autodefense movement
Should the public turn against the autodefensas, Mexican authorities would have less disincentive against repressing them by force, violently if necessary. Autodefense groups have destabilized the Knights Templar within their home territory of Michoacan, and such repression would benefit that cartel considerably in its effort to re-assert its dominance within that region.
Distinguishing “Autodefensas” from “Rural Police” will distinguish the legitimacy of some groups above others.
Not all autodefense groups are aligned. Their interrelations have becoming increasingly violent. It is unlikely they all will enjoy the same degree of public support beyond the near future.
Those which become sworn as Rural Police will bide themselves time against federal repression, and time against the inevitable public realization that those groups have been operating at the behest of cartels for the interests of those organizations, and not the interests of Mexico’s public.
Distinctions in cartel affiliation will become more understandable to the public in terms of the personas of those autodefense groups’ most recognizable leaders
The increased recognition of certain autodefense group leaders public personas will facilitate the Mexican public’s understanding of differences between those groups in terms of their actual cartel patronage. Within Michoacan, the primary warring parties are the Knights Templar and the Jalisco Cartel. Accordingly, two primary networks of leaders have emerged based upon their accusations against one another with regard to respective cartel affiliation, geographic reference, and behavioral patterns toward authorities.
The autodefense groups accused by enemies of being associated with the Jalisco Cartel are based primarily in coastal regions of Michoacan. Their most recognized leadership figures include Dr. José Manuel Mireles, Gabriel Caballero Farias (aka “El Plátano”), and Hipolito Mora (imprisoned since March 2014). They have stated reluctance to disarm, and have accused authorities of protecting the Knights Templar. Their groups have clashed violently with authorities, and they have not yet affiliated with the Rural Police.
The groups accused by enemies of being associated with the Knights Templar or allied cartels are based further inland, in the Tierra Caliente region. Their most recognized leaders include Estanislao Beltrán (aka “Papa Pitufo”, or “Papa Smurf”), Alberto Gutiérrez (aka “Comandante 5”), and Luis Antonio Torres (aka “El Americano”). They appear to have a less antagonistic relationship with Mexican authorities, and are affiliating with the Rural Police. (Side note: Smurf is local slang for ‘police officer’)
The Information Operations advantage is shifting away from the Jalisco Cartel in favor of the Knights Templar
The Jalisco Cartel is known for its pioneering approaches to propaganda. It is the group responsible for the 2012 Matazeta campaign in Veracruz, where they dumped dozens of corpses (alleged Zetas) and disseminated videos portraying themselves as a vigilante organization. They have since honed this approach against the Knights Templar, but have become more effective at drawing upon locally recognized persons, as well as locally recognizable patterns of communal vigilance, in the eyes of Michoacan residents.
Autodefense groups that have struggled exclusively against the Knights Templar captured the public imagination also because of their interesting leadership figures. Most notable in this regard was Dr. Mireles, a well-spoken and highly educated man who looks like a hero out of the Mexican cinema. However, he has since made some poor decisions, including a propensity for confrontational speech toward Mexican authorities. More recently, a photograph disseminated in which he assisted propping up a corpse to be photographed. This unfortunate decision granted enemies an opportunity to portray him as a cartel operative, calling the image a “trophy photo” akin to the type of publicized victimization of enemies that Mexico has come to expect from any of its cartels. Mireles has since dismissed the accusation as being based upon a photo taken out of context, and that he was merely assisting the photographer, but the perception of him as a sincere public servant is steadily eroding.
Hipolito Mora, another high profile autodefense leader allied with Mireles, was arrested in March 2014 and is currently imprisoned for double homicide. This also considerably tarnished the image of the anti-Templar autodefense movement.
Papa Smurf, El Americano, and Comandante 5, have previously been denounced by Mireles and his supporters as criminals, but they have found a new (temporary) boost in public credibility by affiliating with the Rural Police. As Mireles’ supporters clash with them and the battles leave corpses in uniforms, public perception will continue to evolve against Mireles, Caballero Farias, and other leaders allied with them.
Dr. Mireles, Gabriel Caballero, and their allies will need to navigate the possibility of being sacrificed as martyrs or scapegoats to protect the CJNG’s ongoing offensive against the Knights Templar
Should public opinion turn against Mireles, Caballero Farias, and allied leaders, it would be easier for the CJNG to sacrifice these individuals and appoint new spokespersons rather than to re-constitute new autodefense groups to fight the Templars. The potential PR value of these spokespersons’ arrests or deaths could be calculated as outweighing their actual value to the autodefensas’ movement against the Knights Templar. The CJNG has observed how the arrest of Hipolito Mora has decreased public support for the autodefense movement, and will seek to avoid repeating similar public relations setbacks by acting to prevent the capture and conviction of Mireles, Caballero Farias, and remaining autodefense leaders fighting the Knights Templar. If the CJNG does decide to abandon its support of those figures, it would more likely come about through death, since coerced public statements against the autodefense movement or the CJNG could prove very problematic for their ability to retain public favor in the struggle against the Knights Templar, and a martyr figure could be fashioned out of the valorized persona of Dr. Mireles.