“Come back, we’ve taken the mayor hostage!”
The text message from one of my research contacts distracted me from my primary duties of packing my suitcase and getting the baby dressed. I am a professor of political science who studies questions of political and criminal violence, and I had spent the previous two months traveling around Michoacán with my family in order to conduct interviews and embed myself with the various popular self-defense movements that have simmered and sizzled in the region since 2013. Now our trip was coming to an end, and my wife and I planned on spending our last few days in Mexico somewhere pleasant and relatively free of conflict.
“Bring your camera,” a new message lit up my phone.
My wife’s face, sullen and impatient a minute before, suddenly relaxed into a smile. “Okay,” she relented, “you’ve got to go, I know, but be safe!”
Two weeks earlier, on July 25, three young men went missing from Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, a town of 22,000 people nestled in the misty highlands of central Michoacán, apparently abducted by members of the Los Viagras drug cartel. Now, on August 8, hundreds of local residents descended upon City Hall, holding the mayor and seven city councilmen hostage, while others set up a formidable road block of busses and trucks at the town’s entrance. Their plan? They hoped to force the government’s hand into investigating the kidnappings and to bring back the missing men, alive if at all possible.
I had first gone to visit Nuevo San Juan about a month before that, hoping to get acquainted with a local vigilante organization there known as the MOVIL (Movimento de Vigilancia Local), which along with another (mostly allied) group called the Consejo, had reportedly succeeded in ousting Los Viagras back in January, effectively ending the regime of terror that had been imposed by the cartel. I wanted to know how they achieved such a feat, and how the project of grassroots popular self-defense worked on a day-to-day basis.
According to its leaders, the movement began about two years ago as a seedling group of citizens fed up with the increasing incidence of theft, extortion, and general insecurity at the hands of roving drug addicts and preponderant drug traffickers. In the beginning, few among them had weapons, and so they patrolled the night streets with sticks, earning the nickname “los paleros” (the stickmen). As their numbers ballooned, they committed to manning campfires at dozens of all-night checkpoints, and people started calling them “los lumbreros” (those of the fire). Overtime, however, they acquired an array of firearms, and in January 2018, following the murder of one of their own by a known cartel assassin, they unleashed their fiery wrath on all those they held responsible. El Gastón, the local drug boss aligned with Los Viagras, was run out of town in a hailstorm of bullets along with dozens of his henchmen and their families. El Gastón’s brother, Hugo, was alone in fighting back. He paid for this with his life.
The vigilante group’s victory over Los Viagras was a wholly spontaneous affair, unplanned and uncoordinated, but it served to bolster their confidence and convince them of the necessity of becoming better organized. Militarily, they acquired more and better weapons, and they upped their vigilance at strategic points throughout town. They also equipped a good portion of the supporting population with walkie-talkies to coordinate mass collective action on the drop of a dime. Politically, they mobilized to elect a new mayor (not the one currently held hostage), who has since promised to include MOVIL and Consejo leaders in her governing council. Now, they are hoping the new administration will be able to negotiate a deal with the state government to recognize them as a legal municipal police force and help pay their salaries.
There is some precedent for this. Thirty miles away in the municipality of Tancítaro, a similar popular uprising drove out the Knights Templars cartel in 2013, and has since morphed into a semi-institutionalized security system replete with two legally recognized and somewhat regulated local police forces—one funded by the state government, and the other by the avocado growers’ association—in addition to a much larger network of volunteer militiamen who are capable of mobilizing en masse for whatever emergency might arise. However, most of the towns and cities in Michoacán that adopted this kind of security model as the self-defense movement spread throughout the region five years ago have since fallen into disunity, allowing cartel rule to come back—including Nuevo San Juan, where a popular local movement actually clamored for the return of el Gastón, who had temporarily been displaced by the “autodefensas.”
However unstable the current security arrangement in towns like Nuevo San Juan and Tancítaro may be, their impact on security itself has been profound. Where extortion, kidnappings, and brutish homicides were once an everyday occurrence, they are now almost unheard of. Where curfews were once set and the night belonged to rowdy, drunken criminals, families now stroll the plazas late into the evening. Local social life has been revived after years of terror and silence. In such places one feels strangely safe.
But now things are suddenly uncertain again. When I arrived in Nuevo San Juan for the last time, on August 9, I had to leave my rental car on the highway outside the town’s entrance and walk in to conduct my interviews. On that second day of the mayor’s captivity, the crowds mulling around outside City Hall were still refusing to allow food, water, and amenities into the building, hoping to punish the mayor and his councilmen for something they almost certainly had nothing to do with. The government, meanwhile, has stuck to its strategy of playing their bluff. As I write this article, now two weeks later, the government has yet to respond in any way, and the mayor is still captive. Fortunately for him, his term in office ends next week, after which his captivity will be meaningless. For the vigilante movement, however, the seeds of disunity may have already been sewn. The tactic of shutting down the city and holding its public officials hostage has been bad for the economy, and the movement’s detractors are growing in number.
So why did they choose such a radical, dangerous strategy? There is precedent for this, too. A few years ago in a nearby indigenous community called Caltzontzin, the local population blocked the state highway with commandeered busses to demand that the government investigate the kidnapping of a young woman. The tactic worked, and in less than a week the woman was back home and safe, rescued by police special forces.
Such stories are attractive, as they illustrate how social mobilization—people power, if you will—can make governments more responsive to their citizens, and that the Mexican government in particular is perfectly capable of performing well when it wants to. But they also illustrate how very weak the institutions of political democracy continue to be in Mexico, and this is a problem because radical popular mobilization without strong institutions bodes poorly for political stability. After all, holding mayors hostage and blocking highways can be a powerful tool to influence politics, but it comes at a high cost.
Fortunately for me, negotiating the terms of childcare with my wife is less contentious (most of the time).