Examples of vigilante groups abound in Mexico, but all have been short-lived, and their emergence appears to have little to do with the rising tide of drug violence.
For anyone looking to explain why paramilitarism is on the rise in Mexico, the case of the Mata Zetas, or “Zeta Killers” is a terrible example. The group, which first appeared in late July, has spoken of their desire to rid Veracruz of the Zetas drug gang, describing themselves as a “paramilitary arm of the people.”
The group does not appear to be a collection of citizens who have mobilized against drug violence and crime. The most accepted version of their origins is that they are a faction of a Jalisco-based drug gang looking to displace the Zetas from the Veracruz plaza. To describe them as “paramilitary” implies a certain level of grassroots, citizen-led organization, spurred by funding from influential families, or else sources in the private sector or politics. However, in the case of the Mata Zetas, it’s unclear whether are backed by anyone other than a criminal group, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion – CJNG).
There have been other examples of paramilitary-like organizations in Mexico, but most have been short-lived. The Citizen Command for Juarez (CCJ), active in late 2008 and early 2009, claimed to be a group of local business leaders who would kill one criminal a day until violence in Juarez abated. A U.S. State Department cable later hypothesized that the organization were ex-Zetas carrying out extrajudicial killings on behalf of the military. An imitation CCJ group, calling themselves “Businessmen United: the Death Squad” uploaded a video on YouTube threatening Juarez criminals, but the video was taken down and the group has not been heard of since. Other vigilante groups that have appeared — then disappeared — include the so-called Popular Anti-Drug Army in Guerrero and the Omega Squads in Michoacan.
At times, politicians have spoken openly about supporting self-defense groups, but quickly chose to backtrack their comments. Mauricio Fernandez Gomez, the controversial mayor of a wealthy Monterrey enclave, said he relied on a network of strongmen and informants known as “Grupo Rudo.” The group, reportedly charged with intimidating extortionists and kidnappers, allegedly dissolved in 2010.
Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza appeared to echo Gomez’s rhetoric when he said he would support training a community police squad, made up of local volunteers, in a Chihuahua Mormom community. The town was reeling for the death of prominent anti-crime activist Benjamin LeBaron, kidnapped and killed by a group which the Attorney General’s Office inexplicably described as “paramilitary.” Soon afterwards, however, Governor Baeza retracted his self-defense idea, and joined the local military commander in urging the Mormons to not take up arms.
As a report (pdf) by George Grayson for the Strategic Studies Institute points out, there is little evidence that organized, structured paramilitary groups have emerged and endured in Mexico. Even as violence has risen to shocking levels, there appears to be no correlation between the areas that see high rates of crime and killings, and the creation of citizen self-defense groups.
Neither has there been a spike in mob justice. There are isolated examples of citizens taking the law into their own hands and assaulting or even killing suspected criminals. But according to Grayson’s data, such incidents do not appear to have any relation to the atmosphere of drug violence in Mexico. When acts like lynchings, stonings and beatings do occur, they are more indicative of a local community’s rejection of corrupt and ineffectual state bodies. In one such case in mid-July, members of an indigenous group in Chiapas pushed a police car off a cliff-edge, killing at least two officers and a suspect. In Michoacan, indigenous residents rose up and barricaded their town, complaining that the Familia Michoacan were destroying the nearby forests which they depended on.
Speaking of an emergent paramilitarism in Mexico hints at the supposed “Colombianization” of that country’s conflict. But as David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute and Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute point out, there are still significant differences between the citizen-backed self-defense groups which appeared in Colombia, and the relatively isolated cases seen so far in Mexico. The “Mata Zetas” proclaimation that they are the “arm of the people,” then, is little more than rhetoric.