In the state of Michoacan, one of Mexico's rapidly proliferating vigilante self-defense groups has become embroiled in a tense confrontation with the authorities, highlighting many of the issues surrounding the rise of these new armed actors.
The case first came to public attention in early March, when the Mexican military arrested 34 members of a self-proclaimed "community police" group and accused them of working for the drug gang, the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG).
In the raid, agents seized an arsenal of high-caliber weaponry. They also freed the local police director and five other officers, whom the group had abducted and were apparently planning to submit to a "public trial."
While the authorities stuck to their line that the group was at least infiltrated, if not created by the CJNG, the arrested men's families insisted the vigilantes had seized their weapons from members of the Knights Templar -- the dominant criminal organization in the region – and that the police were in the pay of the Knights.
The confrontation escalated when the military captured 17 more men allegedly from the same group days later. The vigilantes responded by taking 47 soldiers hostage, apparently hoping to pressure the authorities into releasing their associates. They released the soldiers after a night of negotiations.
Despite the arrests, the group continued to operate, taking hostage 20 people whom they accused of working for the Knights Templar. Under pressure from the authorities, the group released the suspects after two weeks of captivity.
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Vigilante self-defense groups are now believed to be present in 13 Mexican states and are spreading rapidly. Their rise has sparked nervous comparisons to other countries in the region, such as Colombia, where self-defense groups morphed into paramilitary death squads, and Brazil, where vigilante militias with close ties to the security forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, social cleansing, and extortion.
In Mexico, one of the chief concerns is that the self-defense groups may end up in the service of the criminal groups they were created to confront. The prospect of vigilante groups being infiltrated, co-opted, or even created by drug cartels is just a step from how some of Mexico's criminal organizations already operate -- including those currently fighting in Michoacan.
The Knights Templar are an offshoot of the Familia Michoacana and, as with their predecessors, the Knights have created a public image with a strong undercurrent of vigilantism, presenting themselves as protecting communities from predatory interests -- predominantly other drug cartels. The Knights have also been implicated in vigilante violence, and were accused of lynching an alleged rapist in September 2012.
The Knight's rivals in the CJNG have also employed a vigilante discourse in their public announcements. Twice they have announced their arrival in a region by releasing videos where they denounce rivals, blaming them for crimes unrelated to drug trafficking, such as kidnapping and extortion. They then promise to drive them out of the area and bring peace to the people. When the CJNG arrived in Michoacan, it even called on the state not to intervene in their efforts.
There are concerns about the sort of relationships these groups have with the security forces. Elements of both Mexico's army and police have been proven corrupt and infiltrated by criminal groups, especially in isolated and rural areas where there is little possibility of turning down the cartel's offer of a "bullet or bribe" -- the areas where these self-defense groups are spreading quickest. This raises the prospect of self-defense groups finding themselves in direct confrontation with security forces in the pay of criminals.
The lack of trust in law enforcement is also likely to see a reluctance to turn over suspects to the authorities. The Michoacan self-defense group has so far turned over the people they have captured to the authorities, but a further breakdown in their relationship with the police could well see the group, and others like them, take on a more direct role in "adjudicating" the suspects. Already in Guerrero, two people have allegedly been murdered by self-defense groups, prompting fear that Mexico will suffer the horrors of extrajudicial executions and social cleansing of the sort seen in Colombia and Brazil.
In some sectors, there have been growing calls to legalize the groups, co-opting them into legal state security apparatus. This would create a serious dilemma for groups that have set themselves up in opposition to local security forces, as in Michoacan. Even for those that enjoy a better relationship with the state's law enforcement agencies, this could create serious problems, as it might expose the groups to the same pressures that have corrupted factions of the police and army. If the groups do become legal, it may also encourage officials to cover up any abuses they carry out, or even employ them to carry out the dirty work they are unable, or unwilling, to do.
However, taking the opposite tack and isolating the groups creates another set of dangers, especially in areas where there is already a strong sense of having been abandoned by the state. With little faith in or support from the state, communities may end up viewing the self-defense groups as the de facto authorities. This happened in Medellin in the 1990s, when self-defense groups formed to confront street gangs became militias linked to Colombia's guerrilla groups, which ran large swathes of the city's poverty stricken mountainside neighborhoods at the point of a gun.
In Michoacan, a storm of these factors is brewing. The self-defense groups have emerged in the context of a cartel war between two organizations that already like to present themselves as defending the people from criminal victimization. The police in the region stand accused of collaborating with one of the groups and the vigilantes with the other.
The vigilantes have already demonstrated their willingness to go beyond passive activities such as patrols and roadblocks, and are actively pursuing their opponents with little concern for the law. They have shown their willingness to aggressively challenge the security forces. They are also heavily armed.
To avoid repeating this scenario across the country, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto will somehow have to find a way to acknowledge and address the legitimate concerns that are fuelling the spread of vigilante groups while reining in their ability to act violently and prevent them getting drawn in to Mexico's drug war.