THE BLOG
02/03/2014 05:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2014

Returning Migrants and the Michoacán Autodefensas - An Entangled Past, Present, and Future

For the last few weeks the Mexican Expulsions o Expulsiones Mexicanas Facebook account has been posting many articles about Mexicans returning from the United States to Michoacán and joining the autodefensas in their uprising against the Knights Templar drug cartel. The articles range in depth and analysis, but one thing becomes clear - the autodefensas uprising is linked to the United States in many ways.

Among the leadership, José Manuel Mireles, who for months was the movement's public face, spent many years living in Sacramento and two other prominent leaders, Estanislao Beltrán Torres and Luis Antonio Torres González, have strong ties to El Paso (the latter is known as "El Americano" because of his birth in the United States).

The reports don't only focus on these more visible protagonists. It appears that migrants are fully integrated at many levels, participating in armed encounters and staffing checkpoints. As a recent Washington Post article indicates, many of their trajectories might vary, but time spent in the United States is a common denominator among many.

Los Angeles gang members. Deported Texas construction workers. Dismissed Washington state apple pickers.

Many were U.S. immigrants who came back, some voluntarily but most often not, to the desiccated job market in the state of Michoacan and found life under the Knights Templar drug cartel that controls the area almost unlivable.

For former gang members, like Moisés Verduzco, who admits never having been a "good boy", and having spent years among weapons, participating in the autodefensas makes him feel "good to be doing the right thing for the first time." This seems to be a feeling shared by others with similar life experiences. One is quoted in an older Voxxi story.

"We're here to defend the people. They tell us whatever they need," Adolfo Silva, 20, raised in Santa Ana, Calif., says of the Templars in English. "I'm a guerrilla."

Fighting the Templars, Silva says, reminds him of gang turf battles back in California. But in Michoacan, "you are more into it," he says.

"Over there you might go see a movie," he says of his American life, which he left voluntarily rather than face minor drug charges. "Here you are in the movie. I am living it."

The same story also reports about,

One fighter [who] claimed to be a US Army veteran who returned to Mexico specifically to join the militias. There were many like him, he said. But he walked away when pressed for details.

As the Washington Post article points out, the extortion regime implemented by the Knights Templar has been directly affecting the lives of migrants' families back in Michoacán, causing great consternation and interest among the Mexican diaspora.

For migrants living in the States and sending their hard-earned paychecks home to Mexico each month, this extortion became unacceptable.

Other participants with links to the United Stats did not necessarily return for the uprising. They had already returned and were caught in their home state's security crisis. For example, for the "Comandante Bonita", one of the several female autodefesas recently profiled in the media, this has been her first experience with weapons. After spending about fifteen years in the United States she had returned to Mexico where she worked as manager for a clothing store until "one day she became tired of extortions, rapes and seeing her people disappear." Yet others, like Josué Benítez, who after spending 18 years in California working construction was deported for a DUI, participating in the autodefensas has become a source of income:

He faces the Knights Templar for 200 pesos a day [somewhat less than $20] (the same amount of money many farm workers make in the Michoacán fields). The majority of the autodefensas don't receive a salary, but there are some who do: full-time fighters protecting strategic points.

Beyond armed participation in the Michoacán fronts, many other articles report fund-raising campaigns in the United States by migrant communities in support of their home towns. Many have turned to social media for this purpose. Others, in addition to raising funds, are helping coordinate the creation of other autodefensas groups. While some of these campaigns might be new, they are organized by established groups of kin or other regional affinity that historically emerge and grow as coping mechanisms in many migrant communities.

It is way too early to reach conclusions as to the results of this uprising, but one can clearly see that its causes and consequences are international in nature, and the active participation of migrants should not come as a surprise. Michoacán has historically been a migrant state. At the turn of this century Ruben Martinez published Crossing Over, exploring the causes and effects of migration from the small town of Cherán, Michoacán. More recently, Roy Germano has produced the documentary The Other Side of Migration exploring the issue throughout the state. Decades of disruptions caused by NAFTA's implementation and the growing "war on drugs" have affected the region's economic, political and social relations, exacerbating the motivation to emigrate. Add to this the hardening economic situation in the United States and record number of deportations and you have a proper mix for this migrant participation as Ioan Grillo argues it in his piece about deported Mexicans in the autodefensas.

We cannot yet speak about a new Mexican Revolution, but we can affirm with some certainty that the current uprising in Michoacán is transforming the way the Mexican state relates to its people. We can also look back at the 1910 Revolution and realize that what José Vasconcelos called El México de afuera (The Outside Mexico) has played an important role in Mexico's political transformations, and that this exiled community has been itself transformed by Mexico's political and economic turmoils. Much has been written on this matter, including books like David Dorado Romo's study of El Paso-Juárez, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, or the more recent project by South El Monte Arts Posse, "Ricardo Flores Magón and the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California," to mention just a couple.

The current story is being written at this very time and many open questions remain. Nevertheless, as the growing number of stories accumulated by Mexican Expulsions o Expulsiones Mexicanas show, Michoacán's and the United States' recent past, present, and future are closely linked and getting more entangled.