MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican government poured army troops -- and high-level delegations -- into western Mexico on Tuesday in a bid to take back control of a region long besieged by a deadly drug cartel.
The operation in the Pacific state of Michoacan is the first major military deployment targeting drug traffickers to be ordered by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which is still struggling to publicly define its security strategy six months after assuming leadership of this violent country.
Michoacan was probably chosen because it was fast spiraling into chaos. Parts of the state were awash in lawlessness, crippled by a cartel calling itself the Knights Templar, which in recent weeks blocked roads, torched businesses that refused to pay protection money and killed resisters. Entire villages were cut off, some reported to be desperately short on supplies.
In response and feeling abandoned or ignored by authorities, groups of armed citizens attempted to fight back. But they often proved no match for the Knights Templar and were eager to see the army arrive.
Peña Nieto’s rescue plan for Michoacan bore striking resemblance to his predecessor’s first major military operation -- in Michoacan. In December 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon launched in that state what would become a six-year, military-led nationwide offensive against drug traffickers that ultimately claimed an estimated 70,000 lives.
In Michoacan, his home state, Calderon was battling the notorious La Familia cartel, a forerunner to the Knights Templar. Both groups came to dominate much of the region, infiltrating police forces and city halls across Michoacan and building a huge methamphetamine production-and-export business.
Last week, Peña Nieto named an army general to take over public security affairs in the state, and the deployment of troops began over the weekend. By Tuesday, army and federal police forces had reached several of the most embattled towns, including Buenavista Tomatlan and Coalcoman, in the so-called Tierra Caliente (“hot land”) swath of Michoacan.
Residents were hopeful but said it would take a sustained presence to rein in the Knights Templar and prevent them from launching retaliatory attacks.
“Here they come, I don’t know how many soldiers, I don’t know how many federal police.... This happens every year,” Coalcoman Mayor Rafael Garcia told reporters. “But the terror we are living doesn’t change.”
To trumpet the operation, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong on Tuesday took much of the Cabinet, including top military, police and judicial officials, to the Michoacan capital of Morelia, where they held closed-door meetings with state officials.
Later, Osorio pledged to keep troops in the region until peace was restored and local officials could take over security -- something that has not fully been the case for years. To a reporter’s question, he denied any intention to negotiate a truce with the Knights Templar. Asked how this campaign differed from Calderon’s, he said that today there was better coordination and intelligence.
Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, at Osorio’s side, also said the citizen vigilantes that have sprung up will have to disarm or face arrest. It was not yet clear how many would be willing to do so.