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University of Arizona presentation on the self-defense movements of Mexico

By Jafe Arnoldski

Tucson, AZ – The usual evening at the University of Arizona might involve young males playing war simulations on video game players. That is unless there is a public presentation and discussion of armed indigenous groups battling Mexican drug cartels.

On Wednesday, February 19, 2014, Simon Sedillo, an activist filmmaker, shared his experience filming “El Movimiento de Autodefensas” (“The Self-Defense Movements”) with fifty University of Arizona students and local activists. Autodefensas are armed indigenous groups that are kicking out the drug cartels in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. The people are saying “Ya Basta!” to the violence, corruption, and hopeless desperation of living in cartel-controlled areas. Filmmaker Sedillo described the cartel-controlled towns as “The Hood.” In these places, cartels bribe elected officials, police, and military and the community suffers. Taking up arms, communities are now determining their own lives in their ancestors’ territory.

In the agricultural fields of Michoacán, corn, timber, and fruits are harvested but two commodities dominate production: avocados and marijuana. Michoacán is the worlds leading producer in avocados, and marijuana is a hugely profitable cash crop. In 2010, in the town of Periban, the Knights Templar cartel (KT) seized total control after eliminating its competitors. Competing with rivals, the KT initially appeared community-oriented by building schools and funding projects. However, once control was complete, the KT turned on the community and extorted 50% from any profits that people made. From lemon pickers, avocado farm owners, to tortilla vendors, everybody had to pay. Refusal to comply resulted in threats, and then in torture. Continued refusal meant the KT killed your family, and eventually killed you with a plastic bag over your head.

In three short years, the terror campaign launched by the KT took many forms. A form of rape called “prima nocta” used by kings and nobles in medieval Europe, involves KT bosses forcing themselves on brides, while their husbands are held hostage. Killing, torture, extortion and kidnapping grip the communities in fear.

In the most desperate of situations however, the people of Periban and other communities began to rise up in arms. Former gang members turned community defenders grabbed their automatic weapons, while other community members grabbed hunting rifles. With police and politicians long gone, the abandoned vehicles and artillery of the police became the communities’ resources. Boldly, the community defenders began to hunt down and kill members of the KT. After initial success, even lower level members of the KT began begging to switch sides and join the autodefensas. The upper level KT sought to consolidate power by killing off rank and file members of the autodefensas. However, entry into the autodefensas by outsiders is almost impossible.

Who are the autodefensas?

The corporate media casts the autodefensas as vigilantes. Others are less certain; Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy, joining the conversation from Mexico City by phone, described the autodefensas as “a bunch of men running around with guns.”

In the room at University of Arizona, Sedillo clarified: “the mainstream media and the official line claim the self-defense patrols are composed of marauding militias. Not true. Comunitarios is what the people in this part of the state call the self-defense groups in order to clarify their relationship to the community. They are from the community and are therefore comunitarios (communitarians).”

Many communities are returning to traditional ways of governing themselves while also adopting new methods. Both include consensus decision-making and participatory democracy in the form of assemblies. These assemblies decide what is to be done. So the armed groups do not act without the consent of the community, but are accountable to the assemblies.

Ms. Carlsen cautioned the “militarized nature” of this movement and advocated a peaceful, nonviolent approach. She feels it could lead to further destabilization and an escalation of Federal and paramilitary involvement.

Carlsen was immediately confronted by an audience member who said: “Malcolm X’s analogy of people sitting on a hot stove and not letting them up best describes your liberal attitude toward these communities right to self-determination and to use force to end the KT’s rape, murder, and torture of their families!”

The assemblies also decided to root out the remaining elements of the “narcocultura.” For example, a famous “narcocorrido” singer was barricaded from entering Periban to play a scheduled concert. Communities are operating their own TV, radio, and newspapers. They are connected to the indigenous struggles in Chiapas, inspired by the Zapatistas. Solidarity and support is also coming from groups of people in Mexico City.

Two things stuck out in the presentation: On the one hand, the KT’s capitalist tendency to expand and dominate by investing in productive enterprises such as agriculture and manufacturing, in addition to their drug, gun, and human trafficking operations.

On the other hand, and much to Sedillo’s pleasant surprise, three mestizo communities are following the indigenous autodefensas inspiration and forcibly removed the cartels from their communities. “If you told me two years ago that I’d be talking about mestizo autodefensas, I would have said you’re crazy,” smiled Sedillo.

Interestingly, the Federal Government approached the comunitarios for dialogue and the opportunity to become legalized and registered. But this is because “they must admit that it is the comunitarios who know exactly who is involved, where they are hiding, and what the cartel has done to their families over the last several years. The government officials admit that without the help of the comunitarios, it would be impossible to get rid of the Knights Templar cartel. It is clear that the comunitarios have the upper hand in this situation.”

Unlike Carlsen, Sedillo actually spent time in these “warzones,” giving him access to community members’ voices. Sedillo added that the community members he spoke with named two big fears: “this list of comunitarios names will later be used to criminalize and incarcerate the comunitarios after they have accomplished the task at hand, ridding their state of the Knights Templar” and that “the whole agreement is pure theater, an act by the federal government to buy time and gain control of the situation.”

Two elderly women from Apatzingan told Sedillo under condition of anonymity: “Why are they signing now? Why work with the government when we have proven that we don’t need them to organize and defend ourselves? Why sign with the white-collar criminals?”

While drugs, bribery, corruption, and violence cross the US-Mexico border, so too does the fight back. Reports say community members who were living in the US returned home to play a role in this struggle for self-determination. One such person, Nestora Salgado, a strong, dynamic indigenous woman and naturalized US citizen is imprisoned in Mexico since August 21, 2013. Her “crime” is participating in her community’s legal right to form a community police force to protect themselves against the cartels.

Despite the violence and intensity, Sedillo said he felt safe in what is “liberated territory.”

The domination of the US over Mexico sees the marriage of drugs and high finance. Profits, prisons, and violence hit both sides, but unequally. In the US, banks launder $350 billion, while mass incarceration is over two million. In Mexico, cartel violence has killed 100,000 and disappeared 10,000 in the last seven years. Banks get the money, the poor get prison, and many Mexicans are displaced, disappeared, or murdered.

For more information about the autodefensas visit:

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