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The Impossible Dilemma of Mexico’s Vigilantes

Map via Wikimedia.

Map via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

In a move that the LA Times described as an attempt to head off “a mini-civil war,” last week the Mexican federal government announced that it would assume responsibility for security in regions of Michoacán. The western Mexican state has been torn by violence between the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios, cartel and extralegal community self-defense groups, known as autodefensas. While the Mexican government had dispatched military forces to the state last year, the move to disarm both the militias and local police comes in contrast to president Enrique Peña Nieto’s previous tacit acceptance of the vigilante groups and campaign vow to withdrawal the military from the fight against the cartels. Clashes between the militias, local residents, and government forces — including one that left at least one civilian dead at the hands of soldiers — appeared to have subsided, but the government’s ability to disarm these groups remains in doubt. Autodefensa leaders have said that federal security forces are welcome, but they have not laid down their arms.

The methamphetamine-trafficking Knights Templar organization, which is seeped in salvationist evangelical Christian rhetoric, provides local social services, and enjoys a wide popular following in Michoacán, is essentially an extractive parallel local state in some regions, taxing commerce and reportedly planning to tax housing by the square foot. Also responsible for widespread rapes, extortions, and murders, the Knights Templar split off in 2010 from the now-largely defunt La Familia Michoacana cartel, a similarly evangelical organization which itself has its roots in local militia organizations.

In response to the government’s inability to provide security and the complicity and corruption of local police and officials, in recent years organized self-defense militias began to emerge in over a dozen Mexican states. Often enjoying considerable support from locals and armed with a motley of (illegal) automatic rifles, high-caliber sniper rifles, and shotguns, the vigilante groups have fought a series of gun battles with cartel members, seized several towns in Michoacán and Guerrero, and detained and disarmed local police believed to be working with the cartels. “We have detained the director of public security because he is involved with criminals and he knows who killed our commander,” claimed one militia spokesman last March.

For their part, in an obvious — but not necessarily untrue — effort to undermine the vigilantes’ popular support, the Knights Templar have accused the self-defense groups of working with a rival cartel, which their leaders deny. The Peña Nieto administration had previously tacitly accepted the vigilante groups, both as a means of improving local security and in recognition that federal authorities have little ability to actually control the popular groups, whose existence is due to local governments’ inability to provide security.

In contrast to his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, Peña Nieto has attempted to pursue a more hands-off anti-violence policy. Drug trafficking-related violence dramatically worsened after Calderón’s 2006 election, who launched a new policy of using the Mexican military — which was seen as more capable and less corrupt than police forces — to target cartel leaders. While these efforts led to the elimination of many cartel leaders, it also disrupted the delicate inter-cartel equilibrium and opened power vacuums that the cartels violently disputed. Since 2006, violence between cartels, local authorities, and the federal government is estimated to have killed over 70,000 people.

Peña Nieto campaigned on a promise to redirect anti-crime policy from targeting the cartel leadership towards efforts to halt the kidnappings and violence that affect ordinary Mexicans and to transfer responsibility for fighting the cartels from the military to a civilian gendarmerie, though these promises were often dismissed as evidence that Peña Nieto had no real strategy for or interest in tackling cartel violence. It was hoped that this new approach would led to a reduction in inter-cartel violence by once again tacitly accepting drug trafficking as long as the cartels kept their violence out of the public eye. However, the massive disruption of Calderón’s militarized drug war has led many cartels to branch out from their tradition drug trafficking to more violent criminal activities like kidnappings and extortion, as well as a general increase in criminality, and the murder rate does not appear to have fallen in Peña Nieto’s first year in office.

Whether the militias should be considered local insurgencies or not, the Peña Nieto administration appears to increasingly judge that it cannot tolerate the militias. In addition to complicating Peña Nieto’s international messaging efforts that stresses Mexico’s stability and business-friendliness, the militias’ checkpoints and unsanctioned retributory violence is a serious challenge to state authority — the government’s previous acceptance of the self-defense groups’ extralegal violence was essentially an admission that the Mexican state had no ability to or interest in actually governing its most violent regions. Worse, many have questioned whether illegal armed groups dedicated to vigilante justice are really any more stabilizing than the cartels, and highlighted the possibility that the autodefensas will become criminal organizations themselves. This is a very real fear. The militias’ rhetoric of community self-defense and regional pride is not that different from La Familia or the Knights Templar before then, and if federal authorities are not able quickly disband the self-defense groups their organization inertia may encourage their own self-sustaining extractive criminal activities. Similarly, it is also unclear who the vigilantes really are, and if the groups’ violence also includes covert score-settling by community members.

Accordingly, the federal government has demanded that the local militias disarm and trust in federal security forces’ ability to protect them. Early last week the Mexican interior minister vowed that the federal government would pacify the region and urged self-defense group members to protect their community by joining local police forces or calling anti-crime tip lines. Unsurprisingly, many vigilantes see the federal government’s change of policy as a ‘betrayal.’ Given local police forces’ complicity in cartel violence — last year 18 bodies were uncovered in Michoacán after the confession of police officers working with cartels members — this plea is unlikely to convince many autodefensa members to lay down their arms.

The federal government’s position puts the vigilantes in an impossible dilemma. While militia leaders maintain that they will voluntarily disarm if the government restores public safety by decimating the Knights, after nearly a decade of cartel-related violence the Mexican government cannot credibly promise to protect militia members from retribution by the cartels. “If we give up our weapons without any of the drug cartel leaders having been detained, we are putting our families in danger because they will come and kill everyone, including the dogs,” one autodefensa leader in Michoacán told the BBC. In the absence of a believable federal commitment to protect them, self-defense group members are already committed — if federal security forces are unable to force the cartels out, the only way to survive their affiliation with the militias is to preserve their organizational ability to protect themselves.

But the government faces its own trap. “If soldiers continue to disarm the self-defense groups, the government will be accused of being complicit with the Knights Templar, but if it stops it will be accused of protecting paramilitary groups,” the New York Times recently wrote, citing analyst Alejandro Hope. After escalating violence forced its implicit acceptance of the militias out in to the open the Peña Nieto administration must do something to demonstrate that it can restore order, but it similarly cannot provide the local security the militias can. Indeed, it is unclear if the central government has any real ability to force a change in the local situation — as reports of federal troops standing by as autodefensa members occupied one town or openly cooperating with militia members indicate. The federal government’s need to both disarm the militias and provide permanent security — neither of which it appears to be capable of — puts the Peña Nieto administration in “an impossible bind,” in the words of James Bargent. Operations targeting the cartels will not restore public safety — as they have failed to do again and again — and eventually federal forces will leave and cartel members return. Turning a blind eye to the self-defense groups means further acceptance of communal violence, degrades state authority, and runs the risk that they will metastasize into overtly-criminal organizations. But if authorities are somehow able to peacefully disarm the autodefensas but cannot fill the security vacuum they leave, things will be worse, not better, for local residents subject to cartel retribution.

The organized self-defense groups are a reasonable response by Mexicans who understand that their government cannot protect them. But while tacit acceptance of the militias may be a tempting policy for the frustrated federal government, uncontrollable vigilantism is not a solution it can accept. So far, the lesson of the Michoacán crisis is that it takes a complete breakdown in state authority for the federal government to get serious about local security. This is not an encouraging message for ordinary Mexicans.

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