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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. Read More
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Growth Of Mexican Vigilante Groups Causes Increasing Concern

A member of a self-defense group in Mexico A member of a self-defense group in Mexico

Citizens' self-defense groups are now reportedly operating in 13 Mexican states, as fears intensify that they may turn into paramilitary organizations or be co-opted by criminal gangs.

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Vigilante groups, whose purported aim is to protect their communities from criminals or guard its natural resources, are now present in 68 Mexican municipalities, according to newspaper Reforma. At least three groups have themselves been accused of crimes as the self-defense movement has intensified, said the newspaper -- two for murders in Guerrero state, where the phenomenon began, and one for taking weapons from police in Michoacan state.

The appearance of a new group with "suspiciously sophisticated weapons" and "specially-designed clothing" has caused concern in the western state of Michoacan, reported the Washington Post. Members of the group, which has set up checkpoints on roads in the town of Tepalcatepec, are equipped with assault rifles and professionally-printed T-shirts labelled "Community Police," says the newspaper -- contrasting this to the historic self-defense groups formed of farmers in "muddy boots" carrying pistols and machetes.

Manuel Olivares Hernández, a representative from the Guerreo Network of Civil Organizations for Human Rights criticized one group in the state for arbitrarily detaining two people who had not done anything wrong, in an interview with newspaper La Jornada March 3. "It seems that they are governing themselves under a paramilitary or judicial style, which is being implemented to commit abuses," he said.

Thousands of people marched in support of self-defense groups over the weekend in Guerrero state, reported the Associated Press.

InSight Crime Analysis

The reports of sophisticated weaponry and uniform are a worrying development in the self-defense movement, suggesting a shift towards a more military style of operation. As the groups have multiplied in recent months, there have been increasing fears that Colombia's history, in which citizen vigilante groups morphed into brutal paramilitary organizations, will repeat itself in Mexico. After 25 years, Colombian society realized there was "no greater threat to a country than civil groups who take up arms with a discourse of self-protection," said a recent article about the Mexican movement in magazine Excelsior.

The head of Mexico's Human Rights Commission, Raul Plascencia, warned last month there was a "very thin line between these self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups." Mexico's constitution "categorically establishes that no one can carry out justice for themselves nor use violence to reclaim their rights," said the Commission in a statement.

However the government, has so far adopted a relatively friendly approach to the groups, making arrangements for the handover of detainees and swearing in around 60 ranchers and farmers in Chiapas state as a "Rural Forces Squad." Some regional politicians and members of Congress have called for the groups to be legally recognized.

Monitoring these groups' tactics as their numbers continue to increase is of crucial importance to this debate, and the future security of Mexican citizens. 

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