The Vigilante Militia Presence in Mexico: Self-Defense or Self-Interest?

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities announced the arrest of 46 criminals posing as vigilantes in the town of Huetamo in the southwestern state of Guerrero.  This marks yet another victory for law enforcement officials in Mexico, whom have now detained a total of 110 gang members masquerading as members of local vigilante “self-defense” groups over the last two weeks.  While the government celebrates these arrests as a sign of the strength of state law enforcement initiatives, they, in fact, signal the increasingly blurred lines of the various factions involved with the ongoing violent and brutal Mexican Drug War, but, more importantly, Mexico’s growing vigilante problem.

Referring to themselves as autodefensas, or self-defense groups, these vigilante militias, comprised mostly of rural farmers, have emerged across Mexico in states like Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán as formidable forces in combating drug traffickers and restoring order in towns where local police have failed to protect locals from these criminal organizations.  Indeed, the current conditions of Mexico have certainly created a power vacuum, which has enhanced the role of the autodefensas as stabilizing actors in a raging drug war.

Image courtesy of Presidencia de la Republica, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Presidencia de la Republica, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Since the official declaration of war against drug cartels by the Mexican government in 2006 under President Felipe Calderón, the stability of Mexico has rapidly deteriorated.  As of 2013, the death toll in the Mexico’s war on the cartels had been estimated to have reached a staggering 60,000 lives.  On the civilian level, according to data from the World Bank, the intentional homicide rate doubled during President Calderón’s six year term.  Of those 120,000 total homicides, organized-crime killings accounted for between 30% to 60% of this number.  Beyond rampant violence, corruption of local law enforcement remains at an alarmingly high level with an estimated 93.6% of municipal police using drug trafficking funding to supplement extremely low salaries.  Additionally, a 2013 report by Transparency International reveals that 61% of survey respondents admitted to a household member paying a bribe to police and 55% admitting to bribing the judiciary.

It is within this context of violence, corruption, and lawlessness that vigilante groups have surged to prominence in the fight against the viciousness of Mexico’s drug cartels.  At the forefront of the successful rise of the vigilante movement, the autodefensas in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán armed themselves to fight back against the extremely violent, quasi-religious local cartel known as the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios).  In fact, in January of this year, these vigilante forces garnered both national and international attention when they wrested back control over Michoacán towns and established zones of order and relative peace.

However, even with their effectiveness in combating the cartels, the concept of armed vigilantism represents a significant political and legal problem for the Mexican state.  Two highly intertwined issues arise in the increasing presence of heavily armed vigilante groups in Mexico’s drug conflict: intentions and accountability.  On this first level, driving out existing drug cartels and asserting control over a town may only be the short-term goals for some of these armed groups.  In fact, these short term objectives may be the preliminary stages for these vigilante forces in establishing their own crime organizations in these areas.  For example, before the dominance of the Knights Templar cartel in Michoacán, an earlier group of vigilantes fought back against the Zetas, who ran substantial operations in the state and had become known for their use of grisly murders to coerce residents into cooperation.  Although this vigilante group ultimately drove out the Zetas and brought order to these towns, the organization renamed itself La Familia Michoacana and began operations as the area’s new reigning drug cartel.

In addition to the uncertainty of intentions, vigilante groups are not held accountable by any higher legal authority, which drives the potential for these armed militias to devolve into criminal activity as well as continue to blur the faction lines of this conflict.  Although the prevalence of corruption amongst local police forces and the judiciary of the country does not inspire much confidence in the Mexican government’s ability to fight drug cartels and reduce the high level of violence in the country, the public legitimization afforded to autodefensas may only further undermine the rule of law in Mexico.  Specifically, current President Enrique Peña Nieto has postured his government’s approach to the war against drug cartels on large-scale police reform campaigns and corruption reduction efforts.  With vigilantes offering possible alternatives to police and military forces, there exists a sincere threat to the overall legitimacy of the Mexican federal government and its initiatives for cleansing its ranks.

Despite these potential issues, President Nieto complicated the vigilante issue further when he publicly endorsed their January militia campaigns to drive out the forces of the Knights Templar cartel.  Although the Mexican military was initially instructed to follow a dual mission of combating traffickers and disarming the autodefensa forces to reduce overall violence in Michoacán, government forces ultimately served in a support capacity to the vigilantes and helped the unaffiliated fighters gain administrative control over the liberated towns.

The legitimated successes of the vigilante militias in Guerrero, Oaxaca, and especially in Michoacán has actually inspired a movement of justicia popular, or mob justice, that is spreading across Latin America.  In response to domestic challenges to the rule of law and this perceived legitimacy of Mexican vigilantes, citizens in other regional nations have also begun taking the law into their own hands.  As the translated name suggests, this mob justice has taken a dark tone in the form of increased public lynchings of criminals in Guatemala, Bolivia, and even Argentina.

Yet, in light of the domestic and international consequences unleashed by the rise of the autodefensas in Mexico, a solution may be on the horizon.  Last week, the Mexican federal government and the state government of Michoacán announced a deal with vigilante forces to register their weapons and disband by May 10th this year.  In addition, Mexican authorities have offered those individuals who wish to continue patrolling their towns with the opportunity to join a newly commissioned rural state police force.  However, until the arrival of May 10th, Mexico must place its faith in the notion that these vigilante truly were operating out of self-defense and not dangerous self-interest.

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