By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News
MEXICO CITY — The punishing wave of violence and uncertainty that has swept Mexico’s central state of Michoacan is generating much-needed financial help for the self-defense groups that have sprung up in response, and it’s coming from immigrants abroad.
Dallas businessman Roberto Chavarria is among those sending help. Sitting at a hotel in downtown Dallas, he described his options matter-of-factly.
“Many immigrants like myself have dreamed of this moment, when our people say, ‘Enough,’ and fight back, so the challenge is for us to help in the best way possible,” he said. “I either stand on the sidelines and watch from afar, or I get involved.”
The Mexican diaspora, especially from Michoacan, is increasingly playing an integral role in raising money, via charities or through social media, to support the citizen militia movement spreading over the lowlands of western Michoacan known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, to more than 20 towns.
The movement is spreading so quickly that this past week a new, government-appointed commissioner for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, warned groups to refrain from conducting any operation without the presence of federal authorities — a sign of the uneasy relationship between the government and the community groups.
“We will not stop until we clean Michoacan of the criminal elements that have held our state hostage,” said Estanislao Beltran, one the self-defense leaders. Beltran, like many others in the movement, spent years in the United States, in his case El Paso, Texas, and retains strong ties to migrant groups in Texas, California and Illinois.
Taking a page from Irish Americans and other immigrant groups seeking to help their homeland, Mexican immigrants are united in their frustration against the government’s inability to protect their families back home from the Knights Templar cartel.
Many have had to send sweat-earned dollars to help families forced to pay ransom to cartel kidnappers, or have heard stories of relatives raped or killed, and now they are spurred to act.
“The solidarity of these migrants with their communities is not just a question of honor, but also one of responsibility,” said Primitivo Rodriguez, a native of Ixtlan, Michoacan, and head of the Mexico City-based Coalition for the Political Rights of Migrants Abroad.
It is unclear how much money is involved. Estimates have ranged as high as a $250,000 raised, but Mexican military officials and some immigrant groups say those estimates are exaggerated.
Felipe Reyes of the Michoacan club in Houston said the movement back home is too young and chaotic and the dynamics on the ground are changing too rapidly to generate solid backing at this point.
“Yes, we’re moved,” he said. “But who can you trust? Many of us haven’t been back in years, precisely because of the security problems, so we’re out of the loop.”
Others question whether some of the self-defense groups could have ties with a rival drug-trafficking organization known as Nueva Generation Jalisco.
Many see the Jalisco criminal group as vying for dominance, especially after the capture last week of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, by driving out the Knights Templar with the help of the self-defense movement.
There have been questions about the self-defense groups’ financing and their use of high-powered weapons, normally legally off-limits to anyone in Mexico except the military.
A photograph of Castillo, the commissioner, at a meeting with vigilantes included a man the government identified as a major drug trafficker still wanted to face charges. Castillo has said he didn’t know the man.
Other leaders are warning immigrants to use caution in sending money, warning that con artists are too common.
“The support from abroad has been overwhelming,” said a leader known as Beto, or Comandante Cinco, the top commander in the region of the city Apatzingan.
“That’s why we are urging our paisanos to send their support through family members and have them deliver the aid to our accountants throughout Michoacan.”
Many immigrants, he said, are writing checks in the name of militia leaders, “and there’s the risk that everyone will call themselves a leader. We have to make sure there is accountability, and the best way to ensure that is through family members.”
Comandante Cinco vehemently denied that the self-defense groups have any ties to criminal organizations.
“Look, we’re not Boy Scouts with squeaky clean pasts, that’s for sure,” he said. “But our cause is legitimate and right.”
Comandante Cinco, who said he once owned a restaurant in Oakland and lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said help from abroad is crucial. He said the movement has about $100,000 in weekly expenses, and that money is coming from everywhere, including citrus growers, mining companies, businesses on both sides of the border, migrants and “ordinary people fed up with living like slaves.”
Beltran added: “This is healthy movement for the liberation of our communities.” He urged migrants to help out “in whatever way they can.”
Michoacan has been sending immigrants north for decades.
Some, recently deported by U.S. immigration authorities, see their work with self-defense groups as a source of income.
Others see it as a noble cause.
The movement includes housewives, grandmothers and businessmen who don’t even know how to fire a gun.
Aroldo Mendoza Ortiz, a pharmacist with family in Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas, Texas, joked that he walks slowly, worried that his gun, tucked in his pants, will go off by accident.
“We’re not trained gunmen,” he said. “We’re just tired of the security situation and trying to fix it the only way we know how.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons