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“The Michoacán self-defense forces are not criminals”

Peña Nieto’s special commissioner believes gaining the vigilantes’ trust is vital for peace

Salvador Camarena
Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's special commissioner in Michoacán.
Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's special commissioner in Michoacán.Rodolfo Valtierra (EL PAÍS)

In the rotten environment that permeates Mexico’s Michoacán state – where nobody trusts anyone and everyone blames each other – Alfredo Castillo Cervantes cherishes hope.

A lawyer by profession and politician as a pastime, 39-year-old Castillo was appointed last month by President Enrique Peña Nieto to become his special commissioner in Michoacán. He is in charge of trying to quash the violence between drug traffickers and vigilante groups and at the same time oversee a federal government development program.

In a recent interview, Castillo played down fierce criticism in the media about the existence of the self-defense forces, who are described by many as paramilitaries and criminals disguised as law-abiding citizens. The commissioner believes that peace in the region can be accomplished if mutual trust exists between the vigilante forces and the Mexican government.

Dressed in a short-sleeved linen shirt and loafers, Castillo doesn’t seem to mind the arid heat of Tierra Caliente, a region in Michoacán where there is no winter and the birthplace of the self-defense forces. These citizens decided to organize and arm themselves in February 2013 to fight the powerful Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug cartel, which operates in Tierra Caliente.

On Thursday, Castillo emerged from a long meeting held with representatives of the vigilante movement. They treat him with respect and affection.

The self-defense forces sit down regularly with federal security personnel and the military general in charge of the region at the 43rd army’s headquarters near Apatzingán. Here, the vigilantes are provided regulation weapons, a policy that runs contrary to the law in a country where possession of a firearm could get you a prison term.

The most important weapons they have are not their guns but their information"

For the moment, the Mexican government has no plans to disarm the vigilantes.

As commissioner for security and integral development for Michoacán, Castillo has a broader jurisdiction over the state’s affairs than current governor Fausto Vallejo.

Within 15 days Castillo says he will have the complete trust of the vigilantes so he can move on to the government’s next strategic goals: to stop extortion by the Caballeros Templarios, suffocate the drug traffickers’ financial operations, and bring social development to the region. The Peña Nieto government has earmarked $3.4 billion (some 2.495 billion euros) for Michoacán.

Meanwhile, the self-defense forces continue to make headway in Michoacán. The night before the interview with Castillo they took the town of Gabriel Zamora and were expected to soon arrive in Apatzingán, the most important conurbation in Tierra Caliente and, until now, a haven for the Templarios.

“The most important weapons they [vigilantes] have are not their guns but the information they have. The most important thing we are doing here is to try to get information from them; this is information in exchange for protection,” Castillo said.

The commissioner explained that the vigilantes will have to be deputized as rural officers, a concept that was created in the 19th century, so they can begin controlling the entrance and exits of strategic points across the state where the Templarios are active.

“The people of Tierra Caliente have no bad blood. They did not say ‘the government shouldn’t come here.’ In fact, they said ‘the government has to get involved.’ But for a long time the government did not heed their calls,” he said.

Castillo trusts that the vigilantes represent legitimate interests. “Look, during the meetings they ask for medical supplies, computers, lemon processors, a secondary school and four doctors. I don’t think these are the demands of an organization that represents a danger. If they were a criminal gang, they would not have signed the agreement so quickly like they did [on January 27 to cooperate with the federal government].

“When it comes to weapons, we must make a distinction between rural areas and urban areas. For a long time, people have armed themselves to protect their farms, their cattle and animals. They are not brandishing these weapons inside shopping centers as some people are going around saying. For them, it is part of everyday life.” As part of the joint agreement, Castillo said that the vigilantes will turn over any firearms that are not regulation-issued.

When asked if he feared that the government was sleeping with the enemy, the lawyer said: “Of course not. Over the past 10 years that I have had to deal with criminals as clients, I know the difference between a delinquent and a person who acts in response to a certain circumstance.”

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