Semeí Verdía: the Struggle against the Knights Templar and Mining Interests
Reposted from Dorset Chiapas Solidarity
Laura Castellanos, Special Report
Proceso, 9th August, 2015
Aquila, Michoacán – Semeí [Cemeí] Verdía Zepeda, first Commander of Community Police of Santa Maria Ostula and General Coordinator of Self-Defence groups for the municipalities of Aquila, Coahuayana and Chinicuila, has become the chief enemy not only of The Knights Templar cartel in Michoacán but of the region’s powerful political and mining interests.
After the imprisonment of José Manuel Mireles, former General Co-ordinator of Self-Defence groups and of indigenous communities in Michoacán, Verdía, who has only a sixth grade education, is now the state’s most influential commander of self-defence groups and community police … [in the region of] the Tierra Caliente [Hot Land, just inland along the Pacific Coast]. A 37-year old indigenous Nahua, Verdía has had death threats and survived three ambushes.
On July 19, 2015, soldiers and State Police arrested Verdía for possession of a prohibited weapon. He was carrying an R15 rifle and a 9 mm pistol, both provided by the state government three months earlier, when, after nearly a year of an unexplained wait, he was finally legalized as a commander of the Rural Force. Villagers say that this delay was due to the fact that Verdía is allied with José Mireles.
To protest Verdía’s arrest and demand his release, the Coastal residents blockaded three points along 15 kilometres of the Coastal Highway. Federal forces crashed through the roadblocks and fired on the people of Ixtapilla, killing 12-year-old Edilberto Reyes García and wounding six others.
Verdía was released, but immediately arrested for the murder of four attackers killed during the confrontation of the last ambush against him, on May 25. Also for stealing 60 rolls of wire from the municipality of Aquila. The judge dismissed the first charge for lack of evidence, and the Aquila municipal council withdrew the second charge.
Nevertheless, the [Michoacán] State Attorney General’s Office (PGJE) said in a bulletin that aggravated theft is a serious crime, "therefore, he [Verdía] doesn’t achieve the benefit of freedom" from his confinement in the David Franco Rodriguez Social Rehabilitation Centre, known as Mil Cumbres, in Morelia.
The community of Ostula expected that Verdía would be released on Monday, August 10. In a statement, it warned that, given his imminent release, people linked to The Templars and the Citizen Force of Michoacán had sent a group of assassins posing as residents from the Nahua community of Pómaro—where three iron mines are illegally exploited—and from Coire, in order to confront the people of Ostula. These gunmen set up checkpoints on the coastal road connecting the two communities. The communiqué warned that the gunmen "are being supported by Marines stationed in the coastal town of Maruata, where they now have a blockade with armed people. There is a lot of tension in the region."
In February 2014, Verdía, a small papaya grower, led self-defence groups to Michoacán’s Pacific Coast to free his pueblo, Ostula, in the municipality of Aquila, from the cartel. The action triggered the expulsion of The Templars from a 200 kilometre stretch along Federal Highway 200, a corridor running along more than two-thirds of Michoacán’s coastal region connecting Colima with Guerrero. Among the fleeing Templarios was Federico Lico González Medina, the cartel’s territory boss.
The liberated zone is part of a ferrous belt considered to be the richest in Latin America. The belt runs from Michoacán to both Jalisco and Colima. It was strategic for organized crime both because of the potential for exploiting its mineral deposits, and for its usefulness in the illegal transport of iron to the Port of Lázaro Cárdenas for shipment to China.
In a telephone interview, Cristian Chávez, surveyor for Ostula and a member of the Jalisco Association of Support for Indigenous Groups, said that the community holds property titles to 19,000 hectares. On 7,913 hectares—almost half its territory—Chávez added, there are 14 mining concessions. Seven of these belong to Las Encinas, Inc., a licensee in Ternium, an Italian-Argentina company. The territory, Chávez states, has great mineral wealth: "It is known for the presence principally of gold, copper, silver and iron."
These concessions were granted without any consultation with the indigenous community, which has historically risen to the defence of its territory.
Other mines in the region have been illegally exploited. The three mines in Pómaro, Ostula’s neighbour, were looted first by The Templars cartel, then by Aquila’s PRI municipal president, Juan Hernández, who was imprisoned on May 31 for financing an attempt to murder Verdía and for links to The Templars.
Also implicated in the attack was the Nahua teacher José Antioco Calvillo, from the coastal community of Cachán. Under Verdía’s coordination, Cachán guards the Coastal stretch adjoining the municipality of Lázaro Cárdenas. Co-opted by Hernández in exchange for bribes, Calvillo was imprisoned along with Hernández.
In a video recorded on a cell phone after Verdía’s group captured him, Calvillo states that Hernández wasn’t the only one engaged in the illegal exploitation of the three Pómaro mines. In addition to Hernández, the following participated: Jesús Chuy Meráz, a member of the Los Viagra, who is accused of forming a cartel, and Eloy Peralta, alias El Yanqui, who was the Undersecretary of Michoacán Public Security, brought in by Alfredo Castillo—current head of the National Sports Commission (CONADE)—when he was Michoacán’s Federal Commissioner for Public Security. Peralta resigned his post on June 15, three weeks after the attack on Verdía.
In the videotape Calvillo says that Hernández offered to pay “500,000 pesos” for Verdía’s execution. Calvillo adds that they promised him that after getting rid of Verdía’s self-defence group he would receive "about seventy-odd thousand pesos a month" in royalties for the illegal exploitation of the Pómaro mines.
Indigenous Communities Struggle for Autonomy
Ostula is home to the first self-defence group to rise up against organized crime in Mexico in the twenty-first century. It went into action in 2009, two years before Cherán’s uprising, after a spate of 32 murders and 6 cases of disappearances at the hands of The Templars. Verdía lost a cousin, two uncles and three nephews in this bloodbath.
By virtue of its being the first, the Nahua community became a leader in the struggle for independence, following in the footsteps of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. In 2006 Subcomandante Marcos visited Ostula during his tour called The Other Campaign.
Verdía has been one of the chief defenders of the indigenous territory, which includes an administrative centre and 22 villages [rancherías]. In turn, Ostula had confronted the organized crime that plundered their forests, particularly the sangualica tree [rosewood]. It waged a legal battle against small property owners in La Placita, a nearby mestizo village and Templar refuge, who had seized 1,200 hectares of coastal land with potential for tourism and mining.
In the face of the looting and plunder, the community tried to organize their community police, but the cartel prevented it. Laying siege to the community, they began extorting and murdering the villagers, causing forced displacement. For four years, Ostula was completely isolated.
During those four years, Verdía was exiled. In 2010, after refusing to pay extortion money, he was forced to flee. In broad daylight, while he was playing football before 500 spectators, an armed commando group tried to kidnap him, but he managed to escape to the mountain, wearing only his football clothes.
On February 8, 2014, one year after the self-defence groups rose up in Tierra Caliente, Verdía and seven other exiles, accompanied by 40 self-defence members from Coalcomán, Coahuayana, Chinicuila and Aquila, took back Ostula. In the group were also comuneros from the Self-Defence group at the Aquila municipal seat. On August 15, 2013, they had unsuccessfully risen up against the cartel and the Ternium mining company installed in their territory. They charged that Ternium had not paid the 700,000 pesos in royalties owed to Aquila for the land concession. They further charged that the money was instead being delivered, by extortive means, to The Templars. On the same day as the uprising, the Army entered Aquila, dispersed the movement and arrested 43 comuneros.
After the self-defence groups took Ostula, an Army convoy—in an operation identical to the one that had taken place a year earlier—entered the village, but it wasn’t able to disarm the self-defence members.
Two days later, before an expectant assembly of 1,200 indigenous people, with the presence of some 300 self-defence members from the neighbouring four municipalities, Verdía was named commander of Ostula community police. A year and a half later, Verdía was coordinating the civilian guards in the four municipalities.
Unlike the self-defence groups in the Tierra Caliente region, which are financed by agricultural entrepreneurs and cattle ranchers, those on the Pacific Coast face a lack of powerful weapons and vehicles. Instead, the Pacific Coast self-defence groups are made up of peasants and indigenous people tanned by the sun, many of them wearing huaraches….
… The community of Ostula is aware that Lico and his people are now trying to recover the cartel’s territory.
Translation by Jane Brundage