Self-Defense? Mexico Gambles on Vigilante Security

A new alliance between the Mexican security forces and citizen ‘self-defence’ groups in Michoacán state has brought some short term success in the fight against the Knights Templar cartel. But what will be the long-term consequences of legitimizing heavily armed vigilante groups in Mexico?

The Rise of Las Autodefensas

Michoacan 1

Defense groups in Michoacan take-over the town of Tierra Caliente Churumuco, gathering 28 munucipios under their control. Source: Esther Vargas (Flickr)

In the western Mexico state of Michoacán, federal security forces carried out their first joint operation with citizen “self-defense” groups in early February, marking a new phase in the state’s ongoing fight against organized crime. Since February 2013, these militias, made up of armed farmers, businessmen, ex-military, former gang members and others fed up with high levels of rape and extortion, have been capturing one town after another from a powerful cartel that the federal government has been unable to remove from its seat of power.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto initially condemned these militias, calling for them to put down their arms. But the groups, known as vigilantes or “self-defense” groups, say they have little choice given local governments’ failure to protect their communities from the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) drug cartel due to incompetence and corruption.

Vigilantes have cropped up in about 13 states including Veracruz, Guerrero and, most prominently, Michoacán, a stronghold of the Knights Templar and an important economic hub between Mexico City and the Pacific coast. Aside from being a key agricultural exporter, the state has become a center for narcotrafficking, as precursor chemicals for crystal meth (methamphetamine hydrochloride) arrive from Asia, before being manufactured and shipped up to North American markets. Since May 2013, the government has been deploying thousands of soldiers and federal police forces to Michoacán to target the cartels, but the security situation has continued to deteriorate.

At the same time, the vigilantes, now estimated to number 20,000 fighters, have grown in size and popularity, and have posed quite the public relations quandary for the Mexican government. Peña Nieto’s administration has grappled between a) coordinating with the vigilante groups, which carries the risk of being accused of protecting paramilitaries, and ultimately admitting its own failure to protect its citizens, and b) fighting against them, which risks accusations of protecting the cartels while becoming locked in a three-way battle.

In mid-January the government sent soldiers to Michoacán to disarm the vigilantes, which led to violent clashes and citizen deaths. Due to a strong pushback, the government has since moved to legalize the self-defense groups, rolling them into security forces in hopes of overtaking the cartels. This decision has the potential to bring success against the Knights Templar, as the vigilantes are poised to put up a formidable fight.

Armed with an intimate knowledge of the terrain and high caliber weaponry, which fighters claim was purchased on the black market or confiscated from cartel members, vigilante groups have now taken over several municipalities across western Mexico and have developed a semi-military structure. They even have accountants to help manage the funding coming from wealthy ranchers and businessmen within Mexico, many of whom have been displaced because of the violence. Immigrant workers in the United States also fund the vigilantes; about 1 million people in California alone have family in Michoacán.

In late January the government signed an eight-point agreement with various self-defense groups that allowed them to become recognized as part of an existing community force under military control, known as the ‘Rural Defense Corps’. These little-known government-recognized volunteer militias have a history in Mexico, but have never reached this scale. The vigilantes must now submit a list of their fighters to the Defense Department and register their weapons.

A Dangerous Gamble

Many observers have heralded this decision as a pragmatic way to harness the movement’s momentum. But, as several analysts have noted, it is not without its risks and flaws. As InSight Crime noted, the groups’ mandate in the agreement is vague. It says the military will give the groups “all the means necessary for communications, operations and movement,” but does not say for which activities. The government has said the groups’ status is temporary, but has put no time limit on operations. Fighters must register their weapons, but it is unclear if this includes handguns, which Mexican citizens may already carry. The Mexican Congress will eventually need to clarify these items.

Latin America’s dark history with other government-sanctioned paramilitarism has also raised concerns about using this model. As one Guatemalan human rights activist warned: “the cure is going to turn out worse than the sickness.”

This has certainly been true in Colombia, where state-approved militias became the region’s largest paramilitary group (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC), which went on to commit more human rights abuses than the leftist guerrillas they had risen up to fight. Ultimately it morphed into Latin America’s most powerful drug trafficking organization and developed strong ties to the government. Successor groups continue to traffic drugs, terrorize Colombians, and pose the greatest security threat to the government currently. Guatemala and Peru share experiences of state-backed paramilitaries that carried out human rights abuses, including mass killings, torture and kidnappings alongside those armies during their civil wars.

There are already signs the vigilantes are headed for a dangerous future. Some have been linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a rival of the Knights Templar, an accusation they deny. Also worrying is that mining companies are now reportedly paying them protection fees to ward off drug cartel extortion. In Colombia, businesses looking to protect their economic interests provided much of the funding for the deadly paramilitaries, and in certain instances coordinated with the government to establish their own. The situation in Mexico has not reached these heights, but it is a cautionary tale.

Even the origins of the vigilantes and the Knights Templar are not wildly different. The cartel, started three years ago by remnants of the Familia Michoacana cartel, claimed to be protecting citizens and enjoyed a fair amount of public support before they turned to violent tactics, alienating much of their following. Today, the leader of the Knights Templar still describes the group as a ‘defender of communities,’ telling residents if it was not them there, it would just be another criminal group. While the vigilantes may stay on their intended path, the government should keep in mind the trajectory of previous “community defenders.”

What now?

Apart from creating more structure for these groups, the Mexican government will also need a plan for how to address the crimes they have already committed, and will likely commit going forward. While some of the vigilantes have technical fighting training, the majority has little or no human rights training. Given the Mexican armed forces extremely poor human rights record, this is another point of concern.

Locals are worried about what the future holds as the Mexican government scrambles to bring order to a lawless state overrun with various armed actors. The battles between the cartel and vigilantes have caused numerous deaths and upset commerce throughout Michoacán and Guerrero, but vigilante group leaders say they will continue to fight until the government captures key members of the Knights Templar.

The conflict in this region has already endured for almost a decade. It was Michoacán where former President Felipe Calderón first deployed the military marking the start of “The Mexican Drug War” in 2006. Since then the territory has fallen under the control of various organized crime groups that have battled their way to dominance. While some hope that this new level of coordination will eventually bring some peace, many are worried it will just usher in a new stage of the conflict.

Sarah Kinosian is a program associate for Latin America at the Center for International Policy, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington D.C. that promotes transparency and accountability in U.S. foreign policy and global relations. She works on their Just the Facts project, monitoring U.S. defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.