Thursday, 20 March 2014

Black swan or time-bomb? Mexico’s frustrated citizens are increasingly taking up arms


On New Year’s Eve 2013, armed vigilantes – members of unofficial self-defence groups – fanned out across the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City and home to former President Felipe Calderón.

Their aim?

To drive out the Knights Templar, a drug trafficking organisation.

One prominent vigilante, José Manuel Mireles Valverde, had previously demanded the arrest of seven notorious leaders of the Knights Templar. But the Mexican authorities failed to heed his call.

The rise of the self-defence groups has surprised many. However, it should not have.

In the absence of state protection,  ordinary people are taking on the drug cartels


The members of the self-defence groups appear to be ordinary people exasperated by the authorities’ inability to protect them from predatory criminal organisations. The state of Michoacán has been greatly affected by the activities of the Knights Templar drug cartel, an offshoot of La Familia, using the region’s strategic location to move drugs north towards the US market, whilst diversifying its revenue stream by way of kidnapping and extorting the local population.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) responded to the developments in Michoacán first by creating the Commission for the Security and Comprehensive Development of Michoacán to deal with the issue, and later decided to integrate some of the groups into local police forces. This is a risky move, as lessons from Colombia have shown.

Mexico should heed lessons from Colombia (and elsewhere in Latin America)


In 1964, a law enabled the creation of civil defence units to support the army in counter-insurgency operations. However, as many groups developed links with criminal organizations including drug trafficking groups, they were outlawed in 1987. In the 1990s, provincial governments established another type of group – Convivir – based on the neighbourhood watch and community policing concepts. Yet while by law Convivir were not allowed to carry rifles or heavier weapons, they armed themselves illegally and worked hand-in-glove with rogue elements in the state security agencies and the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), which the US government designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001.

Self-defence groups have contributed to violence and undermined the rule of law in other Latin American countries too. They include the Sombra Negra (Black Shadow) death squads in El Salvador, Peru’s Rondas Campesinas (peasant patrols that played a critical but dubious role in the defeat of the Shining Path insurgency in the 1990s). More recently, Brazil has seen the rise of justicieros who publicize their punishments of petty criminals on social media and have added yet another headache to the soon to be World Cup host.

The phenomenon is not new in Mexico.

In 2011, a group of women took up arms to protect the forests of Cherán from illegal loggers. It is also not localized. In early 2013 in Ayutla de los Libres, a municipality in the western state of Guerrero, a local group arrested and detained thirty-nine men and women accused of extortion and kidnapping, among other crimes, released half of them, and eventually handed over the other half to state authorities. In fact, a longstanding institutional arrangement has allowed certain small communities in the state of Oaxaca to rule themselves according to local customs. Among other things, it grants them the power to choose and establish their own police forces.

However, the scale to which these groups have grown in Michoacán is unprecedented. While the current administration is now pressing states to develop stronger police forces while complementing this with a new federal force, the National Gendarmerie (scheduled to become operational this year), will this be enough to diffuse the time-bomb?

Jerónimo Mohar is an analyst on foreign affairs. He is a former Mexican government official and previously worked at the Mexican think tank Grupo COPPAN.

Benoît Gomis is an analyst on international security, drugs and counter-terrorism and a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). 


They wrote earlier this year on the Rise of Self-Defense groups in Mexico for World Politics Review.

Previous blogs in Governance and Development on crime and the state:

Image credit: By Lokal_Profil [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

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