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Institutionalizing Mexico’s Self-Defense Groups

By Taylor Marvin

Earlier this week leaders of community self-defense militias fighting drug cartels in the western Mexican state of Michoacán accepted a new cooperation agreement with the Mexican government. The deal, which calls for temporarily integrating militia members into the existing part-time Rural Defense Corps and municipal police, represents a bid by the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to re-exert government control over the conflict between cartel members and vigilantes, which in recent weeks threatened to escalate into open warfare. Under the terms of the agreement members of the self-defense forces, or fuerzas autodefensas, must register their members and weapons with the government, turn in weapons deemed illegal, coordinate their actions with formal security forces, and if qualified may join local police. While the agreement is a major step towards the ‘institutionalization’ of the vigilante groups, it is unclear if the government will be able to exert meaningful control over the militias.

Over a year ago Michoacán communities organized to protect themselves from the rapes, kidnapping, extortions, and murders carried out by the Knights Templar cartel, which holds sway over much of the region. A quasi-religious group that unconvincingly claims to protect ordinary Mexican, the methamphetamine-trafficking Caballeros Templarios functioned as something like a parallel state in regions of Michoacán but is locked in a violent struggle with the Mexican government, rival cartels, and now the vigilantes.

The Peña Nieto administration had previously tacitly accepted the militias, apparently viewing them as a hands-off means of controlling cartel violence. But after violence between the Knights and vigilantes escalated this month — with the autodefensas seizing several towns and disarming local police they believed to be corruptly aiding the cartels — the Mexican government dispatched 9,000 soldiers and federal police to Michoacán, demanding that the militias disarm and place their faith in federal security forces. Militia leaders initially refused, despite their professed gratitude for the federal intervention, saying that they would only stand down after top-ranking Knights were eliminated. It is no coincidence that the deal came hours after the arrest of Dionisio Loya Plancarte, the Knights’ third-highest ranking leader and usual spokesman.

At least on paper, the agreement benefits both the vigilantes and the Mexican government. While the self-defense groups may lose some weapons deemed illegal by security forces, it is unclear if the Mexican government is actually committed to confiscating illegal arms and it has said it will provide the militias with communications and transportation equipment. The agreement will also allow the autodefensas to preserve their organizational ability to protect themselves, making it more difficult for the cartels to punish members for defying them — fear of future retribution was a major barrier to vigilantes agreeing to the government’s previous demand that they disband, disarm, and join local police forces. For its part the deal is an attractive middle path for the Peña Nieto administration. Turning a blind eye to the militias would mean an unacceptable admission that the Mexican government has no real ability to police its most dangerous regions and that, in the words of autodefensa leader Dr. José Manuel Mireles, “the failed state was no longer a myth.” But forcibly disarming self-defense groups could be a bloody fight, again put federal security forces in the uncomfortable position of killing ordinary Mexicans, and risk the perception that the government tolerates murderous cartels but not those defending their communities.

Institutionalizing the autodefensas, even if only nominally, allows the Peña Nieto administration to save face and try to refocus international attention on Mexico’s economic potential rather than violence. The move may also lead to greater security gains than relying on local police or federal security forces alone. Counterinsurgency strategy stresses the importance of local security forces operating within a population, who have access to information and first-hand understanding of community social structures that outside counterinsurgents do not. This same logic, when applied to Mexico’s muddled counter-cartel and arguably counterinsurgency campaign, suggests that the militias could continue to be a more effective bulwark against the cartels than federal security forces. Self-defense groups also have more staying power in the community, helping break the cycle of crackdowns followed by the flight and slow re-infiltration of organized crime.

As Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer, while “self-defense groups have often proved vulnerable to co-optation by criminal and insurgent groups” they are also a valuable means of bolstering formal security forces. Across the globe informal vigilante groups are more closely tied to the communities they intend to protect than police or soldiers, often enjoy greater legitimacy within their communities than local or central governments, and while outside of strict state control are not necessarily any more corruptible than state security forces. As Asfura-Heim and Espach write:

A growing body of research suggests that when states are unable or unwilling to provide security, local self-defense groups may be an imperfect but effective alternative. These forces are much cheaper and faster to assemble than formal police and army units, and they can quickly muster large numbers of men to secure isolated communities. Whereas outside forces need years to get to know the geography and residents of an area, local self-defense groups start with a leg up. Moreover, since these groups are motivated to protect their families and communities, they tend to be less predatory and to have higher morale than state security forces … Finally, when the state cooperates with self-defense groups, it can use those ties to reach out to isolated communities and provide them with public services.

It’s easy to say that Mexico should rely on formal security forces, and not community militias, for policing. But the autodefensas’ existence is due to the security vacuum that allowed cartels to essentially control many communities in the first place. If corrupt of ineffective local police and remote federal security forces could not effectively police Michoacán communities then, it is difficult to argue that they will be able to do so in the near future. Asfura-Heim and Espach end their piece with the recommendation that the Peña Nieto administration reach out to and institutionalize the self-defense groups, as it now has.

But even if successfully implemented, the agreement between the government and the self-defense groups doesn’t address the risks associated tolerating vigilantes. The Peña Nieto administration’s policy of tacitly accepting the militias was feared to indirectly condone uncontrollable retributory violence that may or may not be targeted at cartel members, weaken state authority, endanger local governments, and run the risk that individual self-defense groups could turn to trafficking and other illicit activities to sustain themselves. Indeed, the forerunner of the Knights Templars, La Familia Michoacana, grew out of religiously-inspired community defense groups, and right-wing paramilitaries with their roots in military-supported self-defense pacts were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s long armed conflict. If some self-defense groups are actually linked to rival cartels, as many fear, the government’s deal means indirectly allying with some criminal organizations to fight others.

“Outsourcing” security to semi-official militias remains an admission that the Mexican state cannot apply accountability or the rule of law throughout its territory. Given the Mexican state’s inability to impose order in some regions, this admission may be a necessary one. But unless the federal government can firmly exercise control over the self-defense groups’ actions, all the risks associated with communal violence will persist. While Peña Nieto may prefer to keep international eyes on his country’s growing economy, a Mexican state so frustrated with its inability to provide security that it accepts unaccountable vigilantism at the cost of its own legitimacy is not likely to resolve Mexico’s problems.

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