Between Cartels And Militias, Mexican State Hangs In The Balance

President Obama will be in Mexico on Wednesday to talk about trade and commerce. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has made the economy the cornerstone of his administration's agenda, but security is still a major problem in parts of the country. Nowhere are the challenges more daunting than in the western state of Michoacan, where civilian militias have been fighting a ruthless drug cartel and federal forces have moved in to try to restore calm.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. President Obama heads to Mexico tomorrow, where he'll meet with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to discuss commerce and trade among the three countries; it's increased dramatically since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago. The summit of the so-called three amigos will take place in the Mexican president's home town of Toluca, but while Mexico's president hopes to show off his country's economic successes, the ongoing war on drugs and cartel violence threatens to overshadow the gathering.

NPR's Carrie Kahn recently traveled to the state of Michoacan, just 60 miles from where the summit will take place and where federal troops are struggling to maintain the peace between violent drug traffickers and a growing movement of armed civilian militias.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Five federal police officers with bulletproof vests and helmets jump into the back of a large pickup truck. They quickly take up positions - two on each side, one in the front; all with a tight grip on their automatic machine guns aimed out onto the street.

The team is part of thousands of federal police and military personnel sent into the so-called tierra caliente - or hot land - region of Michoacan, the state's rich agricultural area and the domain of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

I was allowed to record the federal patrol on their nightly duties in the region's main city, Apatzingan, but I wasn't told anyone's name for security reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: This officer says when the troops first arrived here 10 days ago, the streets were empty and all the businesses were shuttered. On this night, restaurants are bustling, stores are open, and traffic even clogs the downtown streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Apatzingan businesses may be open, but life is far from back to normal. It's not just federal troops patrolling the city. There are dozens of armed civilian militias here, too. The vigilante groups sprouted up over the past year to do battle with the Knights Templar, who began supplementing their traditional drug trafficking with extortion and kidnapping.

COMMANDER 5: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Hardest hit by the cartel's extortion were Michoacan's lime growers. This man, who would only identify himself as Commander 5, heads up a self-defense group in Apatzingan. He says he was forced to sell the Templars all his limes at the price they set.

5: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: He says the cartel would give him just three pesos a kilo, and then turn around and sell those limes at a much higher price. Commander 5 says in one day, they can make as much as $4,000 off just him. Imagine the millions, he says, they made from other farmers, cattlemen and local businesses who they openly extorted.

The conflict came to a head last month when the vigilantes set their sights on Apatzingan, the Templars stronghold; and President Pena Nieto sent in federal troops to head off an all-out war between the groups. He appointed a federal commissioner to oversee security in the state, and ordered all self-defense groups register themselves and their guns with the Defense Department.

JAIME RIVERA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Jaime Rivera, professor of politics at the University of Michoacan, says legalizing the self-defense groups has been difficult and complicated. He says many of the vigilantes won't turn in their arms. They've seen what happens when they're left defenseless. Also, some groups are thought to be infiltrated by rival cartel operatives and local criminals.

RIVERA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Rivera adds that what began as an inconvenient regional conflict has grown into a political nightmare for President Pena Nieto, and has overshadowed his efforts to downplay drug violence in the country and highlight his economic and political successes. He says it's a subject Pena Nieto does not want to come up at tomorrow's summit with President Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Harper, as it has at other international forums.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELL)

KAHN: In Apatzingan, residents are enjoying the calm, but worrying what will happen with the federal troops leave town. They say they are caught in the middle of a three-way tug of war between the cartel, the self-defense groups and the federal government.

CARLOS HALABE: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Carlos Halabe, who owns a local lumber store, says we may have security now. But he adds really, we have more uncertainty than anything else. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Apatzingan.

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