Violence Hotspots in Michoacán: Who Is Behind the High Murder Rate in the State

Michoacán Overview

Michoacán’s geographic conditions make it an ideal location for importing, producing and trafficking illegal narcotics, like marijuana and opium. With the diversification of the drug market and changes in drug demand, Michoacán ports have become perfect entry points for methamphetamine, synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, as well as precursor chemicals, all smuggled from China. Felipe Calderon’s decision to deploy the Mexican Army to fight organized crime in 2006, reinforced by the lack of social security programs, led to the splintering of several major criminal organizations, which led to the diversification of their businesses and resulted in soaring violence levels in the state. The beginning of February witnessed several high-casualty incidents, which demonstrated that the territorial disputes between the criminal groups dominating the area greatly affect the security environment in the region.

Organized Crime

Michoacán has historically hosted several criminal organizations, including Los Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), The Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana. While the groups’ names have changed over the years, the violence levels have remained high in the state. One of the state’s hotspots, the city of Uruapan, saw a 61% increase in murder rates in 2019 compared to the statistics recorded in 2018. Insecurity led to the organization of local militias, or autodefensa units, who were at first paid by the government but after the program was dismantled and its members lost their paychecks, many of these groups became associated with the criminal world themselves.

Mexico Information Services and Geopolitical Reporting Services from the Intelyse Platform
Distribution of Violent Incidents in Michoacán, 20 Feb 2019 – 20 Feb 2020

Today, the state is contested by two main actors: Las Viagras gang and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). The groups compete over the illicit drug market as well as extortion opportunities provided by the production of legal crops, such as avocados, limes and macadamia nuts. Aside from extortion rackets, civilians often get caught in the middle of the criminal conflict, which leads to casualties and forced displacement. These turf wars also often involve local authorities, who are frequently accused of supporting either of the organizations.

  • The most recent high-impact incident involving the turf disputes between the two organizations was the massacre of nine people, including three boys, a teenager and five others, at an arcade in Uruapan on 3 February.
  • The day before the arcade shooting, the bodies of 11 people were found in clandestine graves on a hill where luxury apartments are being built, also in Uruapan. Another attack killed a municipal patrol officer and wounded two others a day earlier. The attack may have been in retaliation for the earlier arrest of a Los Viagras leader who has been implicated in 19 killings.
  • These incidents demonstrate that neither the CJNG nor los Viagras are willing to sacrifice business gains for the well-being of the local population.

Future Outlook

Violence in Uruapan city, just like in the rest of Michoacán, is unlikely to decrease due to the state’s strategic location and lack of social security policies in place. Aside from having a favorable climate for cultivation of legal crops, the state is known for its remote valleys and mountain ranges that are perfect for production and transportation of illicit goods. Some of the ports located in the south of the state allow for the smuggling of methamphetamine, fentanyl and their precursor chemicals from Asia.

  • The Port of Lazaro Cardenas, allegedly controlled by the CJNG, is one of the main smuggling routes for synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals from China. Heroin use in the U.S. has drastically fallen in the last several years, allowing more market share for other cheaper and easier-to-make narcotics, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine. Due to their expansive networks, larger cartels, like the CJNG, have better opportunities to exploit the fentanyl market, compared to smaller criminal players, like Los Viagras. These new trends have forced smaller groups into other illicit activities like kidnapping, extortion, prostitution or gambling, creating forced displacement in rural communities.
  • The million-dollar avocado industry is headquartered in Michoacán. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to a five-fold increase in avocado exports making the avocado industry a lucrative target for extortion schemes. Cartels have been clearing protected lands from trees to build avocado farms and have extorted local residents. Los Viagras, for instance, charge on average $250 a hectare for protection tax for those who own avocado trees on the outskirts of Uruapan. The involvement of Los Viagras’ competitor, the CJNG, in the extortion of avocado farmers has contributed to high violence levels in the area.
  • The authorities failed at creating effective public policies to resolve security issues in the state. Local avocado producers have organized their own civilian police units. The strategy has been criticized but the government has not intervened. The National Guard has been deployed to the region, but their efforts have not been effective likely due to the lack of resources and guidance from the central government regarding the overall security strategy in the country.

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