MEXICO CITY — Boots on the ground was the easy part.
Last week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto sent a massive surge of military and federal police to embattled Michoacan state. The federal forces currently patrolling its cities, highways and backroads have brought a tenuous peace to a region that had faced a potential showdown between the dominant Knights Templar drug cartel and armed vigilante militias that emerged to drive the cartel off.
Now Peña Nieto must find a long-term solution for the troubled area known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, where years of corruption and neglect — and the subsequent tyranny imposed by criminals — have eroded faith in government authority at all levels, allowing civil society to all but unravel.
For Peña Nieto, who took office 13 months ago, the search for an enduring solution is likely to be one of the most complex challenges of his six-year term. The Knights Templar, a group deeply embedded in the commerce and culture of this swath of southwestern Mexico, will have to be rooted out. The citizen militias will need to be convinced to lay down their own arms. Municipal governments and police forces corrupted by the cartel must be reconstructed from scratch. And that crucial, if impalpable, ingredient that Mexicans call the tejido social — the social fabric — must be repaired.
Any success must take place in a state flooded with assault rifles, ancient clannishness and deep resentments. "It's going to be a very complicated process," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The federal forces have taken over the security functions in 27 of Michoacan's 113 municipalities, administrative divisions roughly equivalent to U.S. counties. Though a civil-war-style showdown has been averted for now, sporadic gun battles have taken place in the last week between vigilante "self-defense" groups and presumed cartel members.
In some parts of Tierra Caliente, vigilantes are cooperating with federal forces, fingering suspected cartel members. For Benitez, this relationship is the key to dismantling the cartel's power. Such citizen participation, he said, was sorely lacking in the strategy of former President Felipe Calderon, who tried without success to pacify Michoacan, his home state, during his six-year term that began in 2006.
"The government needs to get information from an organized populace … to be able to prosecute the Templarios successfully," Benitez said. "Calderon lacked intelligence from the people who were being exploited by the criminals."
Vigilantes have said they will not disarm until the government arrests the cartel's top leaders. The government, meanwhile, does not appear willing to risk the public relations fallout that could ensue if it moved to forcibly disarm the vigilantes: Many Mexicans would see that as a way of helping the Knights Templar.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Peña Nieto said that vigilantes who were genuinely interested in securing the region could be converted into police. A day later, vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran told reporters that his forces "aren't asking to be police," but rather for the government to bring peace to the region.
New police will need to come from somewhere: More than 1,200 municipal officers in the region have been disarmed by federal authorities and asked to submit to federally administered "confidence" tests, which include polygraphs and background checks. Those who refuse to take the tests or fail them will not be asked to return to duty.
Some observers, however, question the wisdom of any formal or informal cooperation with the self-defense groups. They say it's risky to cede police power to irregular militia answerable to no one. And though some of the vigilantes appear to have genuinely good intentions, many people — including Peña Nieto's national security commissioner, Manuel Mondragon y Kalb — have raised the possibility that other vigilantes are backed by drug world rivals of the Knights Templar.
The region needs more than just clean police. In the newspaper Milenio this week, columnist Guillermo Valdes Castellanos said that a real fix would involve "investigating and eventually bringing to justice mayors, local deputies, state and local government officials and probably members of all of the political parties who have used their positions to put themselves at the service of organized crime."
Benitez said Peña Nieto could start by supporting strong, clean candidates in local and state elections scheduled for July 2015. But how to determine who is clean? And how far does the rot actually spread? Unlike some drug cartels, Knights Templar branched out far beyond the drug trade, running a vast extortion racket, controlling much of the commerce at the state's main port and dominating a good deal of Michoacan's important agricultural sector. The cartel is presumed to have picked up some heavy allies in government along the way.
There is fodder for those Mexicans who prefer to assume the worst. National media outlets recently discovered that a minor pop star who goes by the name Melissa is the daughter of Enrique Plancarte, a top Knights Templar leader. This week, a music video has emerged of Melissa frolicking around Michoacan's main judicial building, in the state capital, Morelia.
Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 vowing to change the narrative about modern Mexico, emphasizing the country's economic potential more than its war on drugs. But he seems aware that he will have to fix Michoacan if he wants the world to sing a different tune. This week, his social development secretary announced a new investment of about $223 million in social programs in the state.
The federal police and military presence may prove costly in more ways than one. Some argue that the 9,300 troops and police now in the region create a disincentive for local leaders, allowing them to put off much-needed judicial reforms. Others fear that the Michoacan operation will suck federal funding and attention away from other cartel-plagued parts of the country.
Who would fill that void? The neighboring state of Guerrero already has a vibrant self-defense movement, and a few other states have seen the emergence of similar, smaller-scale groups inspired by the insurgent Michoacanos.
Given all that Peña Nieto has on his plate, the last thing he needs is more vigilantes.