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Autodefensas

The Costs

By JOSÉ FERNANDO LÓPEZ

Sun Tzu, great master of the art of war, asserted, “He who wants to fight must first calculate the costs.” An army (regular or irregular) is very costly, and the ability to finance it depends in large part on the achievement of their goals, particularly if engaged in a prolonged war.

The self-defense groups of Michoacan, Mexico, claim to have 20,000 civilian troops. That is not an insignificant number and demands large amounts of resources to maintain. The origin of those resources is fundamental to understanding the nature of their fight.

According to sources close to the self-defense groups, it takes $26 a day to take care of a single soldier ($15 in salary and $11 in food). To that must be added the cost of weapons (pistols and rifles), means of transport (armored trucks, generally), and communication equipment (see illustration).

Arming 20,000 militiamen can cost much more than what is produced with lemons or tomatoes.

If all members were war “professionals,” the cost of salaries and food for the self-defense groups of Michoacan would come to a sum higher than $15 million a month. This is, from afar, the highest cost of maintaining an army like the one in Michoacan.

An armored truck, according to the source, could cost up to $75,000. Supposing they had 100 and those depreciated during a period of four years (according to the market), the monthly cost would be some $160,000, to which must be added another $120,000 for gasoline (up to $40 a day per vehicle during stakeouts).

If all the soldiers were armed (which many doubt) and they have 15,000 rifles (with an average cost of $1,300, according to the source) and 5,000 revolvers ($800 each), and if these depreciated during two years of continuous use, the monthly cost would be $950,000, without taking into account the ammunition.

Maintaining 20,000 men with weapons could cost up to $17 million per month.

Broadly speaking, to maintain an irregular army like the self-defense groups of Michoacan could cost up to $17 million a month and would be very difficult to finance through donations from residents, many of whom are farmers of tomatoes, lemons, and avocados. Where are the funds coming from then?

A possible explanation could come from another of Sun Tzu’s premises: “It is better to capture an entire army than to destroy it.” According to leaders of the self-defense groups, much of the war supplies the movement has at the moment have been taken from their enemies, the Caballeros Templarios.

This is the case for the armored trucks. All the ones they have right now have been confiscated. But all of them need fuel and maintenance. Not to mention the fleet of almost 4,000 personal vehicles they have at their disposal in the area.

When it comes to the fighters, according to them, the majority serves voluntarily. One of their leaders informed Univision that only 1,500 members of the self-defense groups get paid salaries and served food daily.

The self-defense say most of their weapons have been confiscated to the enemy.

There are, nevertheless, specialists who harbor serious doubts. This is the case with Luis Jorge Garay, an economist specializing in organized crime who has delved deeply into the phenomenon of self-defense groups in Colombia and has begun to follow closely the same in Michoacan.

If indeed some arms could have been confiscated from the enemy, the initial investment to begin the fight must have been very high, and—during a prolonged war like the one the self-defense groups are facing today—voluntary service has its limits.

According to Garay, “In the beginning, the work of self-defense groups may be voluntary, but when they are installed in a region in a permanent way they must not only be maintained but also paid a salary, given recognition.” That, according to him, starts raising costs.

When costs rise, it is possible some self-defense groups will seek, according to him, “to finance themselves through mechanisms such as extortion, or let us call it forced contributions.” In those situations, they tend to become a problem for the government and for the civilian population.

There are those who go further and suggest other forms of financing. According to investigator Steven Dudley from the independent organization Insight Crime, “Some could be receiving support from the residents themselves and others could be receiving support from rival drug-trafficking groups.”

For now, the issue of financing such a large army, as large as they claim to have, remains a mystery. But the truth is, the longer their war carries on, the greater the need for more resources. And the greater grows their threat to society.

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Texts: Raúl Benoit, Jairo Marín, Guillermo González del Campo, Carmen Escobosa, José Fernando López. Investigation: Daily Camacaro. Cameraman: Marco Campos. Infographics: Data4. Video Editing and Production: Laura Prieto. Design; Laura Prieto, Helga Salinas. Programming: Helga Salinas, Edmundo Hidalgo. Project Manager: José Fernando López. Images: Carmen Escobosa, Getty Images.

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