The Knights Templar may have hesitated too long to adjust its ineffective Information Operations strategies against the Autodefense movement, the CJNG, and the Zetas
The Knights Templar cartel is currently confronting several interrelated threats within its primary territory of Michoacan, Mexico. These threats coalesce within the autodefense movement, ostensibly a network of groups comprised of normal Mexican citizenry who have self-organized to fight against cartels (such as the Knights Templar) because of their pernicious effects upon Mexican society. In actuality, the self-described autodefensas are comprised by a combination individuals who are sincere, those who are cartel operatives, and some who are collaborating with government forces in an effort to wield autodefense resources against certain criminal groups and then dismantle it from within when the movement’s usefulness has been exhausted, and before it threatens to spin out of control into a self-sustaining cultural phenomenon that will undermine federal authority by its persecution of criminal elements the government cannot, or will not, eliminate using its own resources. Two of the cartels that have a degree of influence over one or more autodefense groups include the CJNG (New Generation Jalisco Cartel) and the Zetas. These groups are enemies of one another, and have clashed violently in other areas, such as Veracruz. In Michoacan, however, these groups have so far minimized direct confrontation against one another in an effort to expand into that region while the Knights Templar are additionally destabilized from federal repression (concurrently with the autodefense threat).
The culling of Knights Templar leadership has centralized the authority of Servando “La Tuta” Gomez
One recent development contributing to the Templars’ destabilization is the rapid loss of several key figures in its leadership echelon, based on the reported deaths of Enrique Plancarte, El Pantera, and El Chayo (alleged leader of the Knights Templar, who has been reported killed in the past). There have also been recent arrests of political figures accused of aiding the Knights Templar, including Jesus Reyna, Secretary of Government and former interim governor for the State of Michoacan. These losses help to consolidate the leadership influence of remaining power brokers within the Knights Templar, particularly that of Servando “La Tuta” Gomez. He is now the most high profile figure in the organization, and the most valued target for autodefense forces, federal police, and military.
Information Operations of the Knights Templar: Well executed propaganda with content that reflects ineffective strategy
Like its organizational predecessor, La Familia Michoacana (presently a rival cartel to the Knights Templar), the Knights Templar cartel has drawn upon religious themes in its propaganda. This has led some to characterize the Knights Templar as a quasi-religious organization, and others to dismiss the religious elements as strategy to deceive the public into perceiving it as a religious organization. In my view, these interpretations over-simplify the religious symbolism and fail to situate it within the Templar’s broader signature style of propaganda, which mobilizes any and every symbol respected and associated with power in the eyes of the Michoacan public. Symbols such as the Mexican flag, the crucifix, Pancho Villa, and Che Guevara are wielded in Templar propaganda not in a chimerical sense, but rather because it is anticipated by propagandists that each of them represents something few Mexicans can publically criticize in good taste. For example, some who would praise Guevara publicly may privately wonder whether he was actually a hero. In a place like Mexico, public respect of Guevara’s persona can be more important than inward reservations about the true integrity of his personality. This orientation is implicit with regard to how the Knights Templar has courted the Michoacan public up to this point. Through the manipulation of respected symbols, in conjunction with ultra-violence and other terror methods, they have attempted to minimize public resistance to their various forms of revenue generation, which range from legitimate businesses to extortion, murder-for-hire, and drug sales (foreign and domestic). In the absence of outward public resistance to Templar business activities, private reservations about the organization’s moral integrity are not a serious concern to its leaders.
The content of Knights Templar propaganda has focused mainly on advancing an image of the organization as unified with the Michoacan people and region. It has disseminated pamphlets emphasizing that its members follow rules that require respecting women and the safety of innocent people. These themes have been reinforced through myriad narcomessages displayed publically, as well as through gestures such as picnics, demonstrations, and other social events open to the public.
In 2013, as the autodefense movement and federal forces increasingly destabilized the Knights Templar within Michocan, La Tuta issued several videoed statements that circulated through social media and news media. Much of this content argued that while the Knights Templar were not perfect, the rules of conduct were taken seriously by its leadership and violators would be punished. He argued that while he was no saint, he (or someone like him) was a necessary evil in Michoacan. Regardless of whether these arguments are factually accurate, the messages were ineffective because they fall upon a rather unsympathetic audience, as many in Michoacan consider the Templars more responsible than any other party for the marked degradation of public life since the drug war intensified in 2006. One such interview has been posted at the following link: http://www.puronarco.com/2014/01/servando-gomez-martinez-la-tuta-nuevo-video/
Despite the strategy of justifying the Knights Templar cartel’s existence has proven to be increasingly ineffective within Michoacan, there has been little re-adjustment of the propaganda focus to address its most immediate problems, namely the autodefense movement, its cartel benefactors in the CJNG and the Zetas, and the federal forces within that region.
The Information Operations strategy the Knights Templar should have employed (but did not)
Rather than attempt to defend its own blackened reputation in the eyes of the Michoacan public, the Knights Templar should have focused its resources into spreading the perception of the autodefense movement as being manipulated by its enemies, namely the CJNG and the Zetas. A warning of Michoacan becoming victimized by “foreign” criminal organizations based in Jalisco or Tamaulipas would have dovetailed seamlessly with the Knights Templars’ established pattern of emphasizing local social cohesion in its communications to the public.
While it is true that Gomez has previously claimed the autodefensas were being wielded by the CJNG and the Zetas, the message was not sufficiently centralized in his communciations, nor was it repeated sufficiently in other forms of Knights Templar propaganda. Nor has the perception been throroughly disseminated through popular Mexican media.
The message of autodefense-cartel connections could have proven very problematic for the autodefense movement, particularly because it’s factually accurate. Mexico’s government is well aware that the autodefense movement has been infiltrated and influenced by the CJNG, the Zetas, and other cartels. Propaganda that centralized messages and symbolism equating the autodefensas with enemy cartel operatives could have pressured federal repression toward the autodefensas before the Knights Templar had been destabilized to the extent they now find themselves.
The Information Operations dilemma facing La Tuta and the Knights Templar
The situation in Michoacan has now reached a point where it would be risky to re-adjust its information operations strategy. In the past, La Tuta’s messages have proven interesting to the public, and if he were to personally issue video messages to emphasize these points, they would draw significant public attention. Therefore, he retains the ability to disseminate a potentially damaging message of the autodefensas being controlled by the CJNG and the Zetas. Yet his power has never been consolidated to this extent, and to release a personal message would further raise his profile as a target for federal repression. Essentially, personally delivering the message that could turn federal forces more against the autodefensas could greatly imperil him as well.
Some basic Information Operations alternatives for the Knights Templar
La Tuta can issue a message linking the autodefensas with enemies such as the CJNG and the Zetas, and endanger himself in the process.
He could opt to remain silent in an attempt to avoid raising the ire of authorities, though he is not widely regarded as aversive to federal repression.
He may also direct Knights Templar to issue black propaganda, whereby the critical content linking autodefensas to the CJNG, Zetas, and other cartels will disseminate through the media from sources that do not appear to originate from the Knights Templar.
Finally, a combination of white propaganda (i.e., messages reliably attributable to La Tuta or the Knights Templar) and black propaganda (messages appearing to come from sources other than the Knights Templar) could be used to disseminate knowledge of links between the autodefense movement and Templar enemies in the CJNG and the Zetas.
The most logical Information Operations alternative for the Knights Templar
The black propaganda approach is the alternative that would be more likely to turn the autodefense movement and federal forces against one another without drawing unnecessary attention to La Tuta or the Knights Templar as it attempts to stabilize within Michoacan. However, it may now be too late to dissuade federal forces from focusing its efforts upon Gomez as the most recognized, feared, and influential figure in the Knights Templar cartel. Regardless of the extent to which federal forces are willing to continue destabilizing the Knights Templar, an effort to target Gomez may be immanent.
Autodefense Movement: A Double-Edged Sword for the CJNG
Autodefensas: Who are they?
Many popular media outlets portray the autodefense movement as a loosely organized network of groups comprised of ordinary Mexican citizenry who have self-organized to forcefully confront the criminal organizations that progressively degrade Mexico’s public life.
There is some truth to this perception insofar as many sincere individuals are involved with these movements. This view is also rooted partly in precedence of periods in Mexico’s history where communal vigilance emerged against excessive lawlessness. However, the present autodefense movement is much more complicated than what some popular media outlets would lead consumers to believe. It is not simply a network of sincere vigilante groups.
How this relates to the CJNG (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion):
In reality, the autodefense movment is a potpourri of community leaders and representatives from various entities with their own agendas, including several of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels. Naturally, Mexico’s federal and state authorities are also working to infiltrate the movement to influence it from within. However, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG) exercises more control over the autodefense movement than does any other entity, criminal, federal, or otherwise.
The challenges (and dilemma) facing the CJNG:
Since 2013, the CJNG (based in Jalisco) has been at war against a rival cartel, the Knights Templar (based in Michoacan), related to expansionistic aspirations of both organizations (whose territories border one another). The CJNG has infiltrated the autodefense movement and manipulates it through intelligence, finanancing, weapons, personel, leadership, and corruption of state and federal officials whose responsibility would be to repress the movement, against its rival the Knights Templar cartel within the Templars’ own territory of Michoacan. The autodefense groups have not only proven themselves as an ongoing threat against the Templars, they also have provided federal and state authorities with intelligence to aid government repression against the Templars. The autodefense movement has helped to destabilize the Templars while the CJNG attempt to extend their territory from Jalisco into Michoacan, as well as into neighboring areas (such as Guerrero).
However, the autodefense movement has drawn the ire of the government and its days are numbered. Dozens of autodefensas have been arrested by federal forces, including notable leadership figures (such as Hipolito Mora) for alleged ties to organized crime, illegal forms of violence, unlawful detainment, and other illicit activities. Mexico’s government has been ambivalent toward the autodefense movement. While they have Mexico has allowed the autodefensas to attack the Templars, federal forces have intermittently moved to strip the autodefensas of the military grade weaponry supplied by CJNG (and perhaps others). Mexico’s authorities have occasionally clashed violenetly with autodefensas who accused them of operating on behalf of the Knights Templar. The present trend appears to be that Mexico’s federal forces are becoming more interested in disarming and repressing the autodefensas. This will not bode well for the CJNG, and repressive efforts will probably be felt not only in Michoacan, but also in the CJNG’s territory of Jalisco.
The dilemma facing the CJNG is balancing the benefits of continuing to wield the autodefensas aginast the destabilized Knights Templar with the increasing risks of being associated with the movement given the increasingly obvious immanence of federal repression against it (and by extension, the CJNG), as well as the risks of decreasing or ceasing involvement in the autodefense movement.
Alternative courses of action for the CJNG:
Some basic alternatives are for the CJNG to continue influencing the autodefense movement against the Templars, to support it with weapons, intelligence, financing, and strategy but decrease direct involvement of its members, or to cease its involvement altogether in the autodefense movement.
Most logical strategy for the CJNG:
The CJNG has invested a great deal of resources into its ability to wield the autodefensas against its rivals, and the only way to continue to ensure these groups remain preoccupied with those rivals is to remain actively involved (including providing leadership) within the autodefense movement. Decreasing support could result in loss of influence over the autodefensas, in which case there would be no guarantee the movement would not spread into Jalisco to confront the CJNG as it has the Knights Templar in Michoacan. Should the CJNG completely end its involvement and withdraw support from the autodefense movement, this could enable a rival cartel to function as the movement’s new patron (and director) to ensure its own impunity and direct the autodefensas against its own rivals. The latter possibility would create greater problems for the CJNG.
At this time, the CJNG will probably choose to retain influence over the autodefense movement, despite the risk of federal repression that involvement could bring in the near future.
The autodefense movement’s days are numbered, but federal repression can backfire if executed with poor strategy…
Mexico’s government and state agencies will prolong completely disarming the autodefensas until they have learned more about how the CJNG has operated within the movement. This will include gathering evidence against key figures, which (when used to prosecute high profile criminal figures in a court of law) might appear more impressive to the US, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued financial assistance provided to Mexico to assist its ongoing struggle against the cartels.
If and when Mexico’s government moves to dismantle the autodefensas, it will need to proceed carefully (and with proper strategic guidance) to avoid a PR nightmare calculated by the CJNG.