SOA Graduate Takes Control of Security in Michoacán, Mexico


by Simón Sedillo

Alfredo Castillo, the federal envoy in charge of security for the State of Michoacán since January 2014 has stepped down and is being replaced by General Pedro Felipe Gurrola Ramírez, a US Army School of the Americas (SOA) graduate. The School of the Americas is notorious for training a wide variety of infamous military officials from all over Latin America in strategies and tactics which include but are not limited to torture, coercion, kidnapping, rape, murder, mutilations, massacres, mass media manipulation, political manipulation, and paramilitarism. In 1989, religious based faith groups and concerned individuals created the School of the Americas Watch, an organization that has outspokenly opposed the SOA, demanded the release of the names of individuals trained at the school, and exposed a number of atrocities and crimes committed by SOA graduates throughout Latin America.

In 2002 the SOA changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and has continued to function as a primary US based military training camp for Latin American soldiers. Mexico has had over 1700 military personnel trained at the school between 1955 and 2003. Due to the diligent work of SOA Watch, the names and courses taken by these 1700 Mexican military personnel have all been made public; however, names of trainees after 2003 continue to be withheld from the public. The last attempt to release names between 2003 and the present was shut down by the Obama administration.

General Pedro Felipe Gurrola Ramírez boasts participating in an Army Ranger course at Fort Benning and is among other infamous military personnel trained at the SOA who are still on active duty, including Mexican general trained at the SOA is General Jose Ruben Rivas Peña, who is primarily responsible for the creation of militarily trained civilian paramilitary organizations in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. Of these paramilitary organizations, armed civilian death squads were created to confront the Zapatista National Liberation Army and their civilian support base communities, resulting in several ongoing confrontations, the worst of which was the 1997 massacre of unarmed civilians at a church in Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico. Mexican authorities claim that Mexican officials trained at the SOA during this time period were being trained in counter narcotics strategies, however after the 1994 Zapatista rebellion began, the bulk of Mexican soldiers trained at the SOA were specifically trained in psychological operations, which include counterinsurgency tactics and the creation of paramilitary organizations.

Other famous Mexican SOA graduates are today, in fact, members of the very narcotics cartels that are bringing Mexico to its knees. 31 ex-soldiers once part of an elite division of the Mexican army –the Special Air Mobile Force Group– deserted their official positions and became the security arm of the Cartel del Golfo, only to later break off and create the most violent cartel in Mexican history, the Zetas. Mexican military deserters turned cartel hit men are not limited to the Zetas cartel but also include Michoacán’s own Knights Templar cartel. In a twisted sequence of events, somehow the head of security in Michoacán is now a military general trained at the same institution as some of the most dangerous hit men for the Knights Templar Cartel.

The use of paramilitary organizations has been a signature strategy used by SOA trained Latin American military personnel. The fact that an SOA graduate is now in charge of security for Michoacán is alarming to say the least. This only adds to the mounting evidence that there is indeed a US military counterinsurgency strategy in Mexico aimed at securing political and economic interests by any means necessary.

Through the North American Free Trade Agreement, politicians, banks, and corporations have been imposing a military, economic, and political strategy in Mexico since 1992, which has included the privatization of telecommunications, transportation, education, healthcare, energy, and of course, land and natural resources. Indigenous communities throughout Mexico have organized and resisted the privatization of their communally owned lands. In response to a largely unsuccessful land privatization strategy, the Mexican government with the help of the US government has increasingly employed a military strategy of internal defense and paramilitarism. Today, a culture of paramilitarism permeates all walks of Mexican society, not just indigenous communities. For every social group that attempts to resist and organize against the military, political, and economic impositions of neoliberalism, there is a paramilitary counterpart ready to act as a provocateur, a shock troop, or even a death squad in order to derail efforts for social change through the threat of violence and the use of brute force.

Paramilitarism entails several specific criteria:

1. That the paramilitary organization be conformed of civilians with an opposing point of view to a given civilian social movement, be it social, cultural, labor, religious, geographic, economic, or political.

2. That the paramilitary organization be financed and trained by an official entity such as the military, police or other official government entities, corporations, banks, or local land barons.

3. That the paramilitary organization carry out acts of violence and brutality as a primary strategy in order to take control of territory and natural resources.

4. That the paramilitary organization functions with complete impunity from prosecution by official government entities.

5. That the acts of violence carried out by the paramilitary organization function as “deniable atrocities” from which state, corporate, banking, or government officials can deny involvement or responsibility, claim internal civilian disputes, and therefore justify further military or police intervention in a given region.

The whole purpose of paramilitarism is to divide and conquer without appearing to do so on an official level, to then justify official militarism and accomplish the ultimate goal of controlling territories and natural resources. The most prevalent cases of paramilitarism in Mexico can be found in land dispute issues within indigenous communities, in particular in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero under the auspices of the SOA trained general, Jose Ruben Rivas Peña. Extensive analysis, research, and investigations have unveiled the extent to which the strategy of paramilitarism has been used to undermine indigenous struggles for land autonomy and self-determination in these states. There is no longer a single doubt about the existence of this low intensity warfare strategy in these regions.

When it comes to states such as Michoacán however, somehow the mainstream media, academia, and many solidarity activists have ignored the paramilitary tendencies of organized crime cartels. The people of Michoacán have struggled to survive and persevere in the face of a violent onslaught by three different cartels: The Familia Michoacana, the Zetas, and now the Knights Templar. Michoacán is known worldwide for marijuana cultivation and trafficking, but with a growing trend towards marijuana decriminalization and legalization in the United States of America, today the Knights Templar cartel has now diversified into the production and trafficking of methamphetamine. In a globalized marketplace for cheap labor, land, and natural resources, cartels throughout Mexico have also diversified into a much more profitable industry, which is the use of coercion through violence in order to gain territorial control. Today the Knights Templar cartel continues to harvest terror with the precision of a military death squad and engages in an international drug smuggling operation. The cartel, however, has also quietly been engaging in private security roles in the interest of illegal natural resource extraction strategies employed by corporations, banks, and political oligarchies.

If we apply the five aforementioned criteria that constitute a paramilitary organization to the cartels, what we see is a level of professional paramilitarism that has now surpassed classic forms of paramilitarism, in that the territorial control exercised is absolute. In addition to trafficking narcotics, kidnappings, torture, coercion, the charging of protection money, rapes, assassinations, organ trafficking, cannibalism and public displays of mutilations, in Michoacán the Knights Templar cartel has taken control of entire legitimate industries, such as avocado and lime agribusinesses and mining operations. In other cases like Cherán and Ostula, the cartel has provided armed security for illegal logging endeavors. This is the true face of narco-paramilitarism in Mexico today.

Today organized crime profits continue to pour into transnational banking institutions as laundered and legitimate investment capital. In Mexico, narcotics cartels are simply emulating the neoliberal military political economy, which condones and exacerbates violence as the primary means to attaining power and social, psychological, and territorial control. It is no wonder that major organized crime cartels have risen to power and control of entire territories of Mexico and the USA. In Mexico, neoliberalism is a narco-paramilitary political economy whose primary enemy is the Mexican people.