MEXICO CITY—The beginning of 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, but instead of focusing on the ongoing revolutionary work of Indigenous people and their allies in the south of the country, the eyes of Canadians and people around the world were on the state of Michoacán.
In mid-January, thousands of federal troops and police entered the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán and stormed smaller villages, in an attempt to disarm self-defence groups. Local and global media carried striking images of federal forces confronting local people who displayed a variety of weapons, dressed in mismatched shirts, their faces covered with kerchiefs or swatches of fabric.
“These are citizens who have had people from their communities murdered, who have been extorted and who have come out to defend themselves,” said Javier Sicilia, one of Mexico’s leading peace activists, in an interview with The Dominion. “This is a case of civilian defence facing a state that cannot give it that which a state must give its citizens: peace and security.”
The self-defence groups have sprung up across the state of Michoacán in an uprising of organizations composed mostly of farmers and ranchers fed up with unfettered kidnappings, extortions and murders carried out by crime groups in collusion with the state.
Commentators and community members alike say these self-defence groups have succeeded where the Mexican army and police have failed, forcing out the organized crime groups whose activities in the region go far beyond drug trafficking and include territorial encroachment on fertile and forested lands.
These recent actions by government forces in Michoacán point to conflicted and confusing relationships between the Mexican government and the self-defence groups. “First they regarded them with suspicion, then they backed them up, protected them, guarded them, and then they repressed them,” said Alejandro Hope, of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), in an interview in Mexico City.
Instead of targeting the drug cartel, in mid-January federal troops began confronting local communities, in order to disarm the self-defence groups. Most recently, Mexican forces allegedly opened fire on a crowd holding its ground in an attempt to prevent the disarming of the local self-defence group in Nueva Italia, just outside Apatzingán, causing two to four deaths. (The number of deaths is disputed by locals and government officials.)
The recent standoffs in Mexico aren’t lacking external involvement, including that of the Canadian government. In addition to Ottawa’s involvement in training Mexican police, reported in detail in The Dominion in 2013, Canada has quietly become embroiled in Mexico’s military affairs over the past few years.
The first trilateral meeting of defence ministers from Canada, Mexico and the US took place in March 2012. In addition, Canada and Mexico participate in the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM).
Ottawa’s increased support of the Mexican army comes as the number of dead in the drug war, now in its seventh year, continues to rise. “We’re talking about 100,000 dead. Those are official figures, and then there are those that have been killed more recently—the war continues, like in the case of Michoacán, we have no idea how many dead there are,” said Sicilia. “There are no trustworthy numbers of the dead or disappeared.”
According to the Canadian Press, exports of Canadian weapons and ammunition to Mexico climbed by 93 per cent between 2011 and 2012.
This increased investment is bucking the trend in terms of Canada’s military exports. “Half of what we produce is exported. Eighty per cent of that goes to the United States. If you add allies of the US and Canada, NATO countries, countries that were active in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the value of Canadian exports to those countries is almost 100 per cent,” said Richard Sanders of Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.
In December 2013, Abbotsford’s Cascade Aerospace announced a contract with the Mexican army to overhaul two airplanes. This contract will employ 70 Canadians full time for a full year. And while tensions in Mexico have been escalating, Canadian military contractor CAE announced a new contract to provide a flight simulator to the Mexican Air Force.
The war profiteering of Canadian companies, encouraged by Ottawa's close relationships with Mexico’s police and armies, is something that should be under a spotlight as killings of civilians by the police and army continue in Mexico.
Dawn Paley is a journalist from Vancouver (Coast Salish Territories). Her work is online at dawnpaley.ca.