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.

stevegraphic

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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions of ...

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

 Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

Well-armed vigilantes in Mexico's Michoacan state have helped authorities dismantle a powerful criminal organization, but now the government may have a more difficult task: keeping Michoacan safe from the vigilantes and rival criminal groups.

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

After the lower house passed the controversial marijuana bill July 31, Uruguay is poised to become the first country on the planet to regulate the production, sale, and distribution of the drug, and provide a model for countries looking for alternatives to the world’s dominant drug policy paradigm. ...

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

After the capture of Zetas boss "Z40," Nuevo Laredo is bracing itself for the worst. This investigation breaks down what makes the city such an important trafficking corridor, and what it will take for the Zetas to maintain their grip on the city.

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

Whether it is sustainable or not, the truce -- which the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 put into place March 2012 -- has changed the conventional thinking about who the gangs are and what is the best way to handle the most difficult law and order ...

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Since the end of El Salvador's civil war, the country's police has become a key player in the underworld. This series of five articles explore the dark ties between criminal organizations and the government's foremost crime fighting institution.

Juarez after the War

Juarez after the War

As a bitter war between rival cartels grinds to an end, Ciudad Juarez has lost the title of world murder capital, and is moving towards something more like normality. InSight Crime looks at the role politicians, police, and for-hire street gangs played in the fighting -- asking who ...