Vigilantes in Morelos, Michoacan

Animal Politico consulted experts who explained the risks and benefits of legalizing the vigilantes in Michoacan, Mexico, following the signing of an eight-point agreement between the three levels of Mexico's government and various self-defense groups.

How can the government control an illegal armed movement that has widespread backing from society, and that is also successfully combating a drug cartel in Michoacan?

Mexico's federal government hurried to answer this question on January 27, when, in the municipality of Tepalcatepec, officials signed an eight-point agreement to "legalize" and "institutionalize" diverse vigilante groups in Michoacan through the creation of so-called Rural Defense Units.

Translated and reprinted with permission from Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here. 

Following the signing of the agreement, in which the vigilantes agreed, among other things, to register the arms they are using to fight the Knights Templar criminal group with the Defense Ministry (SEDENA), the reactions have been wide-ranging.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Vigilantes

While some security experts consider the decision of President Enrique Peña Nieto's government "intelligent" and "pragmatic," others have called it risky and rushed, and believe it also could have the result of allowing the vigilantes to act with impunity without having to answer for alleged criminal acts. And all of this with a facade of legality.

"The vigilantes are not constitutional," Juan Federico Arriola, a research professor for the Iberoamericana University's Law Department said emphatically. "Article 17 is very clear in this regard: nobody can take justice into their own hands."

However, despite this situation, the academic admitted that the executive was faced with "a dilemma" in Michoacan, since any decision taken would involve risks.

"Peña Nieto finds himself in a true dilemma with the vigilantes. If he legitimizes them, he is condoning the crimes they have committed, since it is apparent there have been crimes committed in their confrontations with criminals. And on the other hand, if he does not legalize them, it is even worse, since this would show a lack of desire to cooperate," the professor said in an interview with Animal Politico.

"The problem is that we do not know, for example, if after the vigilantes are left alone they might create a new cartel tomorrow. The risk is that everything gets further out of control and the situation turns into a true civil war; that is to say, into a situation of civilians who have armed themselves and are breaking the law based on the argument that they are defending themselves against other civilians who are armed and, frankly, criminals," added Arriola. He also criticized the lack of coordination between the three levels of government in regards to resolving the situation in Michoacan's "Tierra Caliente" region.

"The situation is chaotic; there is no coordination between the federation, the states and the municipalities in regards to public security. And they certainly do not know how to solve the problem. This is why the federal government felt trapped and, through the Interior Ministry (SEGOB), invented that whole story of the "super powerful" commissioner (Alfredo Castillo) to send to Michoacan. But the real issue is that if they don't catch the Knights Templar, if they don't decrease crime in Michoacan as they are hoping, then we can no longer say that just Governor Fausto Vallejo [of Michoacan] failed, but rather, that the federal government failed, and that is much more serious," he concluded.

For his part, Erubiel Tirado, an expert in public security matters from the same university, believes that the eight-point pact between the government and the vigilantes is more part of a federal government strategy "to get results at whatever cost," in a problem that has hit the front pages of media around the world.

"The government sees the vigilante groups as instrumental in confronting a very violent cartel that continues to make its presence felt and to control the state of Michoacan, formerly as the Familia Michoacana and now as the Knights Templar," said Tirado. He continued by expressing his concern that "parapolice" groups made up of people without police training could become integrated, with the blessing of the administration, into government security forces.

"The Michoacan vigilantes take the form of parapolice groups, and their primary motivation is to take justice into their own hands and enact private vengeance. That is to say, they are organizing, in a proactive manner, to fight against a criminal group. And that is an action that should only correspond to the authorities, that is to say, to the three levels of government," said the academic.

In this regard, Tirado questions whether, once the vigilantes are integrated into the rural units, the authorities will investigate whether they committed crimes during their armed confrontations with the Knights Templar, and if this turns out to be the case, whether they will be punished.

"At this moment, in Michoacan, we have a complex blend of elements and people that engaged in de facto violence with no consequence. Until now, we do not know if there were abuses committed by the vigilante groups, or if there was collateral damage during their confrontations, or if any Knights members were executed. And we don't know that because nobody is demanding to know, and because for the government, this problem has already been solved."

In the opinion of Raul Benitez Manaut, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the decision of the Peña Nieto administration to bring the vigilantes into a legal framework has been, in effect, rushed, although he clarified that he meant this "in the positive sense" of the word.

"The vigilantes have given life to the fight against drug trafficking, because they have undertaken an offensive on their own, without the government, against a criminal organization as destructive as the Knights Templar," he said.

SEE ALSO: Covergae of Knights Templar

"For that reason, I do not see anything negative in the authorities institutionalizing that effort through the Rural Defense Units and trying to find ways within a constitutional framework to regulate the vigilantes. I think that we are seeing a pragmatic government, which is trying to shape existing laws as they can in order to join forces with the vigilantes and, at the same time, to put them into institutional structures."

Manaut was asked about the fears of human rights activists from other Latin American countries such as Colombia, Peru and Guatemala, who already lived through conflicts with paramilitary groups -- on January 28, Guatemalan activist Claudia Samayoa told the Associated Press that, in regard to the legalization of the Mexican vigilantes "the cure is going to turn out to be worse than the sickness."

His response was that the situation in Mexico is very different from that of those countries. "The case of Michoacan is distinct, because in Colombia, Peru and Guatemala the self-defense groups formed part of counter-insurgency structures, and here they do not. In Michoacan, what exists is a popular anti-crime organization, but it has not declared war on the government, but rather, on a criminal group. They are very different cases,” said Manaut. As a corollary, he noted that the armed self-defense forces in Tierra Caliente are, effectively, illegal, but are not criminals.

"In comparison, the Knights are illegal and also criminal. But the vigilantes have not committed crimes nor human rights abuses, nor have they extorted the people or charged quotas, and they have managed to halt a drug trafficking organization without the help of the government. So why would what they do have to be bad?" the UNAM expert asked in conclusion.

*Translated and reprinted with permission from Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here

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