Vigilantes in Michoacan

If Mexico's government thinks that "legalizing" vigilante groups in the embattled state of Michoacan will solve its citizen security problems, it should have a closer look at the three other countries in the region -- Colombia, Guatemala and Peru -- that tried similar projects under similar circumstances with dreadful results.

The legal structure that will govern the self-defense forces in Mexico, while preliminary and abbreviated, formalizes them with a name -- Rural Defense Units -- and asks them to submit a list of their members to the government.

Various points of the law are somewhat vague. It says they can work with the municipal police, but does not obligate them to be part of the police. It requires them to register their weapons with the army, but does not say if they can keep their weapons, or what kind of weapons they have to register (Mexican law allows citizens to carry up to a .38 caliber).

The government also says it will help the vigilantes with their activities but does not delineate clearly what those activities entail. In fact, that remains the biggest question: exactly what are the Rural Defense Units going to do? What is their exact role and jurisdiction?

All of this, of course, will need to be more clearly defined via more formal legislation, presumably at the national level, because the militias are breaking several laws already and putting the current administration in a terrible public relations quandary: how do you embrace a paramilitary strategy without admitting that you have failed as a government?

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Vigilantes

When Mexico's Congress does sit down, it should carefully consider the efforts of three of its neighbors, who created legal paramilitary units to help them with their own security issues. Among these, Guatemala's was the largest in per capita terms. The so-called Civil Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil - PAC) numbered between 500,000 and 1 million members at their height, an incredible number considering the country's population was not more than 10 million at the time.

The PACs were not really collectively defined by one law but many, and were run under military despots, making their use somewhat arbitrary and, ultimately, brutal. In fact, the army commanders who controlled the PACs used them to systematically inform, torture and kill their neighbors, often at gunpoint. The Archbishop's report following the war said the PACs, together with the army, were involved in 1,799 human rights violations and 342 massacres.

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In Peru, the government made a more concerted effort to place the "Rondas Campesinas" under a legal structure, which was loosely based on the historic "neighborhood watch" groups that had operated for years in indigenous communities.

The laws evolved to give the groups weapons -- a 1991 legislative decree even permitted the acquisition of 12-gauge shotguns. As in Guatemala, the army used the Rondas in their dirty war against the insurgents, although not in such spectacular and massive fashion, often putting them in harm's way. The Rondas became easy targets for the Shining Path, Peru's brutal rebel group, which massacred hundreds of peasants when the army left their villages.

Perhaps the most damning example of how not to administer state-sanctioned militias comes from Colombia, where the so-called Convivir were wrapped into a larger law on private security only to provide the backbone to what would become the region's largest paramilitary force.

Under the moniker the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), these same paramilitary groups became the state's proxy army, committed massive human rights abuses and became the hemisphere's most powerful drug trafficking operation.

SEE ALSO: AUC Profile

Time has helped judicial authorities render judgment on both the paramilitaries who committed some of these atrocities and the policies that helped create their deadly structures in the first place. In the recent decision to condemn imprisoned paramilitary leader Ever Veloza Garcia, alias "HH," a Bogota court said the Convivir policy had allowed: "the paramilitary groups to consolidate and expand their criminal networks and their ties with economic, political and state actors."

Considering this history, it is interesting that Colombia has provided Mexico with training and high-level consultants, including the former head of Colombia's vaunted police, Oscar Naranjo, who returned to help the Colombian government negotiate a peace deal with the country's rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

There is little indication that Colombia has passed on the paramilitary "secret" to the Mexicans. In fact, Naranjo knows better than most the damage they can cause long-term. After the AUC demobilized and signed their own peace deal with the government, dozens of smaller paramilitary groups emerged. The government called them Bandas Criminales (Criminal Bands), or BACRIM, in order to camouflage their origin.

The BACRIM have since dragged the country through another brutal phase of war in which the group that emerged as the most powerful, the Urabeños, has its roots in the original paramilitary group, the AUC.

The experiences of these other Latin American countries serve as a cautionary tale, and should be not be taken lightly by Mexican lawmakers as they move forward with formalizing the Michoacan vigilantes.

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