The presence of armed civilian self-defense groups across Mexico will only cause "anarchy," according to the country's interior minister. His recent comments underscore a lack of coherent public policy on key security issues, as well as the precarious situation faced by citizens exposed to high levels of violence.
"Nothing allows society to arm itself, because that would lead us into anarchy, which is what some [groups] want," stated Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong during a press conference in the southern state of Guerrero.
The state is home to a number of rival self-defense groups as well as some of the highest homicide rates in the country, and it is being contested by dozens of different criminal factions -- a situation the state government admits it is unable to control.
Osorio Chong also urged Mexicans to trust in the country's security forces, including municipal, state and federal police as well as the army, which was dispatched a decade ago as part of Mexico's crackdown on drug trafficking and organized crime.
Self-defense groups across Mexico have surged over the last decade, and new ones continue to emerge. In July, a new 200-strong community police force emerged in Guerrero. New civilian defense groups have also recently risen up in the states of Quintana Roo, Guanajuato and Michoacán, among others.
Michoacán was where Mexico's contemporary wave of self-defense groups first emerged. (Volunteer community policing has been a tradition in indigenous communities across southern Mexico for centuries.) Armed civilian groups there helped the government dismantle criminal organizations, but following the defeat of the Knights Templar crime group, President Enrique Peña Nieto's government attempted to co-opt the self-defense movement into a rural police force -- a plan that ultimately failed.
Throughout the country, the line between these community defense groups and the ranks and interests of organized crime have become blurred, with many of them accused of acting as the armed wing or accepting financing from criminal gangs.
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The latest comments by Osorio Chong highlight the schizophrenic approach Mexico's current government has taken to the rise of self-defense groups across the country in the last decade. A lack of a consistent public policy regarding how to deal with these vigilante movements has seen the federal government at times embrace them, at other times condemn them or throw their members in jail when their interests do not align.
An incoherent public policy around the possession of weapons has also contributed to the problem. As Alberto Islas, director of Risk Evaluation, pointed out, an absence of control around weapons -- all of which are illegal in civilian hands in Mexico -- has allowed these groups to arm up.
"There is no public policy to seize weapons. There are plenty of laws, but they aren't enforced," he told InSight Crime.
The government has long complained about the number of weapons sold in the United States that contribute to violence and arm organized criminal syndicates in Mexico, yet Islas says that authorities need to do more to control the weapons coming through its borders both north and south.
"Our customs authorities are not efficient at confiscating weapons," he said.
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Chong's concerns over "anarchy" also shows how control of security around the country, usually exclusively in the hands of the state, is being contested by both civilian and criminal groups.
However, some of these very groups -- many of which have now criminalized -- emerged precisely as a response to the lack of an adequate state presence and the co-opting of police forces and local governments by organized crime, points out Jorge Chabat, a professor of international studies at the Centre for Research and Economic Development (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas – CIDE.)
"What happened was that [at the time the government] had no other options but to allow these groups," said Chabat in an interview with InSight Crime.
Had the government done a better job at maintaining security around the country, these groups might not have emerged and proceeded in some instances to mutate into new criminal players.
Mexicans now find themselves in the position of not knowing where to turn to for security. Their options consist of notoriously corrupt and abusive state security forces, or local community actors who in some cases are funded or otherwise backed by local criminal groups, or have become organized criminal actors themselves.
"Until this is resolved, these [self-defense] groups will continue to emerge," said Chabat.