Mexican Workers in NYC Talk About Michoacán and #Autodefensas

Jan 21, 2014
1:38 PM

While the struggle in Michoacán continues between the self-defense groups, the Knights Templar drug cartel and the Mexican army and police, media reporting from Mexico has portrayed the various views from locals. But what do those who emigrated from nearby areas of Michoacán, and follow the news from the U.S. think?

Cris Alfaro image La Chamba

CREDIT: Chris Alfaro, “Santos en la chamba”

So far, reports from Michoacán locals show there are those who support the self-defense groups, those who are not sure whom to believe and those whom think that any group who gains power gets corrupted at some point. This weekend, Mexican newspaper El País Internacional, informed that a local census in Michoacán revealed how 58% of the population approves of the self-defense movement; although 46.7% does not think their only objective is to reestablish security.

From Mexico, The New York Times reported how it is difficult to find residents who don’t appreciate the self-defense groups. Journalist Antúnez, Randal C. Archibold spoke to a local fruit vendor who said:

Since they [self-defense groups] came last week, everything changed,” said a fruit vendor who, like many here, spoke in whispers and anonymously out of fear that the gang that had ruled would return. “It is peaceful.”

The support and trust for the self-defense groups varies. In an interview with CNNMexico a Michoacán resident who asked not to be identified, expressed that locals were not given many options by the self-defense groups, and some residents are confused about who to believe:

“We think that this is going to last for months, because there is not just one person who says, ‘We are going to hand over our weapons to the Army,'” he said. “People are very afraid. We do not know who to believe. The self-defense groups tell us one thing, and the military tells us something else.”

And for some, although the struggle appears genuine, there is always the fear of corruption, which is a common outcome in the history of Latin American revolutionary movements. Alfredo Castillo, a new commissioner heading up security in the state, offered a warning last Thursday:

The newly formed self-defense groups, he said, could become as ruthless as the cartels they claim to oppose.

“You can start out with a genuine purpose,” he said. “But when you start taking control, making decisions and feeling authority … you run the risk of reaching that point.”

In NYC, Mexican workers are also following the news about Michoacán. It is not difficult to see people traveling on the 7 train from Queens, with Spanish newspapers open, reading headlines about their country’s struggle as they head to work in kitchens, restaurants, or other sites around Manhattan.

Although support for the self-defense groups may vary in degree, one view that most agree on is that the government has been inefficient, and that corruption rules over their home country.

Saul y Lucio

CREDIT: Gabino Castelán “Saúl y Lucío en la chamba”

Saúl works in a kitchen in NYC and is from Guerrero, where his family lives. Saúl, who has been in NYC for 9 years, expressed; “The Mexican government is corrupt, that’s why the self-defense groups were formed. The self-defense groups are good people who want to protect their families. We have police in Guerrero, but everything is marked by corruption.” When asked his opinion about the drug cartels in Guerrero, Saul asserted “drug-cartels (los narcos) will remain because that’s where the money is, and the demand won’t go away any time soon.”

Antonio is a chef who came to NYC 25 years ago from Matamoros, Puebla. He has a son and a daughter who attend college in Puebla, Mexico. Alberto does not have faith in the Mexican government and expressed “the government is not doing the job they should be doing. If they did, there wouldn’t be all this violence. And we don’t have a saying, people don’t want to express their opinions anymore because of fear.”

Antonio, who reads the news from his country, expressed “Being here, from so far away, it is heartbreaking. I cannot do much because I am a simple person who works. Violence won’t stop until government does what they are supposed to be doing.” When asked about the self-defense groups he responded, “they can’t always accomplish what they promise.”


CREDIT: Gabino Castelán “Antonio en la chamba”

Although the Mexican government is sending army forces to disarm the self-defense groups, so far, groups refuse to disarm until the head of the drug cartel is caught. On Saturday, Aljazeera informed that violence broke out between the military and supporters of the community police, killing several people and that “After the tragedy, there was little evidence to suggest troops were disarming people or trying to stop the militia from battling the cartels.”

When I asked Lucío, a kitchen assistant from the state of Morelos, who has lived in NYC for 9 years, about the self-defense groups, he said,

What is difficult for the government is to allow the self-defense groups to get all the credit. I give some of my support to the self-defenses, because they support and defend their families and their homes. The government on the other hand only defends itself.

Lucío added that he has no doubt self-defense groups come into municipalities peacefully: “The groups arrive to a town and, at the entrance, they give the town motives over why they are coming in. If the town wouldn’t like their motive, the municipalities would not let them in.” About the drug cartel, Lucio expressed, “It’s a lie that the drug cartels help people, all we see is extortion and violence.”

Lucío, who sends money to his family from Mexico, expressed that watching the current news from NYC “hurts,” he mentions how “I cannot do anything from here, and from here, they always talk about the worst of Mexico, the violence, but nobody shows how beautiful it is.”

[Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated to English.]


Carolina Drake has an MA in Philosophy and writes about bilingual education, immigration, and being Argentine in the U.S. Follow here here: @CarolinaADrake.