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

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

The power of Colombia's elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country's agricultural land.1  Under Spanish rule, Colombia's agriculture was organized on the hacienda...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid...

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America...

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

In a new report based on extensive field research, InSight Crime and the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa have traced how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence...

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Transnational organized crime likes opportunities and little resistance. Bolivia currently provides both and finds itself at the heart of a new criminal dynamic that threatens national and citizen security in this landlocked Andean nation.

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...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

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.

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Faced with the government's failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan's vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the...

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

If Uruguay's proposal to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana is properly implemented and overcomes political and economic hurdles, it could be the most important drug regulation experiment in decades.