Militias in Mexico: Citizens’ Security or Further Conflict Escalation?

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This article explores the security and political effects of militia forces that emerged in Mexico in recent years in reaction to violent organized crime, most prominently in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero.

President Calderon and the Cartels’ Shuffle in Michoacan

The home state of former Mexican president Felipe Calderon, Michocan was an early focus of his administration in response to the rapid growth of the violent criminal cartel La Familia Michoacana (LFM). In 2006, LFM was one of Mexico’s most vicious drug trafficking groups, and its authority was expanding over large parts of the state, particularly in La Tierra Caliente. It engaged in brutal violence, visible on the streets of Michoacan. It launched an aggressive extortion campaign that targeted major businesses in the state, such as avocado growers and logging companies — not even businesses operating in the state capital of Morelia were immune. By 2009, LFM reportedly had influence over (or extorted anyway) perhaps as many as 180,000 sales outlets, including gasoline stations, truck shops, street markets, movie theaters, and other businesses. Its daily earnings were reported (likely highly exaggerated) to be USD $1.9 million.

This is an excerpt from an article that was originally published by the Center for Complex Operations in the security studies journal PRISM Volume 5, Number 4 issue, and is reprinted with permission. Read the full article here

La Familia’s control over some communities was pervasive. LFM would monitor the entries and exits of towns and villages, permitting or denying passage to anyone passing through, sometimes extorting the person for money. Mixing religion and rituals under a cultish cloak, it also established “courts” and “dispute resolution” procedures for residents of areas under its influence. Indeed, some residents of Michoacan’s Tierra Caliente as well as Morelia told me in spring 2011 that they actively preferred the courts of La Familia to the formal state justice. Others were just terrified, believing that the group had “halcones” (lookouts and informants) everywhere; had deeply penetrated mayors’ offices, municipal councils, and local police forces; and could strike anyone. But La Familia also had to battle other criminal groups for turf, including the super-violent and expanding Los Zetas as well as smaller rivals, such as the Millenio Cartel. Over time, government action combined with these attacks from rivals hastened the demise of La Familia.

During the Calderon administration, Michoacan became one of the first areas where the Mexican military was deployed to combat criminal groups. Like elsewhere in Mexico, one of the military’s key missions was to back up, and in some circumstances completely replace, Michoacan’s municipal police forces which typically were undertrained, under-resourced, deeply corrupt, and completely overwhelmed by organized crime.

Equally important, the new military policing strategy — consisting of high-value targeting and searches at fixed checkpoints — failed to restore or, perhaps more precisely, expand state authority and control. Nonetheless, the high-value targeting strategy was capturing many of LFM’s top leaders; and in the spring of 2011, Los Piños (the seat of the Mexican president) declared LFM dismantled.

By then, the militias were arresting people whom they accused of working for the Templarios and other criminal groups, and held their own court trials and meted out sentences.

Within weeks, however, a new criminal group, Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), emerged and took over the illegal and informal markets in Michoacan that La Familia used to run. Although portraying themselves as a self-defense force to protect Michoacan residents and purge the area of organized crime, Los Templarios soon came to behave like the evil they purported to ostracize. Even more aggressively than LFM, they extorted legal, informal, and illegal businesses. In addition to kidnapping relatives of rich businessmen, they, too, demanded extortion fees from avocado farmers and logging companies, and expanded the extortion racket into iron ore extraction and shipping through Michoacan’s principal port and economic hub, Lazaro Cardenas. In March 2014, the Mexican government’s special envoy for restoring rule of law in Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, claimed that Los Templarios made more of their money from extorting the iron ore extraction, processing, and transshipment operations than from drug smuggling or other extortion.

Regardless of whether this assessment of the cartel’s financial portfolio is accurate, the Templarios, exploiting their strong territorial presence and a fearsome reputation, succeeded in turning themselves into a multi-faceted mafia with fingers in many illegal rackets in the state and widespread extortion.

Militias Popping Up … in Guerrero Too

By the spring of 2014, Los Templarios were the area’s most feared authority. Despite their purported emergence in reaction to the abuses and excesses of La Familia Michoacana, the Templarios also overreached in their demands for extortion fees and obedience and triggered a backlash. As a result of this heavy-handedness, anti-Templarios militias began forming in Michoacan’s countryside even before the influence of the Templarios peaked.

Anti-crime self-defense forces, such as in Michoacan’s Cheran municipality, began emerging as early as 2011, but the Calderon administration did not pay much attention to them. Their expansion, visibility, and increasingly questionable behavior continued to grow through 2013. By then, the militias were arresting people whom they accused of working for the Templarios and other criminal groups, and held their own court trials and meted out sentences. They were particularly active in Michoacan’s towns of Tepalcatepec, Buena Vista, and La Ruana, where they gathered whatever weapons they could find and seized control of police stations.

SEE ALSO: Knights Templar News and Profile

When the self-defense forces began to beat up, expel, and detain not just municipal police officers, but also soldiers, the administration of Calderon’s successor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, could no longer remain placid about their growth. But even detentions of militia members who were engaged in the worst excesses, such as kidnappings of police personnel, did not appear to deter them.

The militias also grew in the neighboring state of Guerrero, one of the most violent areas in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration thus far, with 73.2 homicides per 100,000 in 2013, compared to the national average of 29.3 per 100,000 that year. Although its homicide rate decreased in 2014, Guerrero remained the second most violent state in Mexico. A plethora of small, fragmented, unstable, and highly violent criminal gangs emerged in the state in the wake of the federal government’s high-value-targeting interdiction policy against the once dominant Beltran Leyva Cartel. Like in Michoacan, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel from neighboring Jalisco has also been encroaching on their territory, triggering violent battles.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Jalisco Cartel

In Guerrero, the provenance and control of the militias seems even murkier than in Michoacan. Some of the self-defense militias appeared to be permeated by organized crime groups, such as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In fact, some cartels have begun labeling their own hitmen as self-defense groups and have attempted to penetrate and subvert the existing self-defense groups. At the same time, the militia forces in Guerrero have also been intricately intermeshing with the so-called “community police forces,” legally permitted under Mexico’s constitution and allowed to carry firearms, which operate mainly in indigenous communities. In the spring of 2013, there were 45 such community police groups in 14 of Mexico’s 32 states. In Guerrero’s municipality of Ocotito, for example, the local self-start-up militia force appeared to have the assistance of the Union of the People and Organization of the State of Guerrero (Union de los Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero: UPOEG) community police force.

Moreover, an extensive whispering campaign emerged in both Guerrero and Michoacan that the militias might also be taking justice into their own hands more aggressively — such as by killing those they viewed as opponents. At minimum, they would trot around with machine guns, expel or arrest municipal police officers they saw as incompetent or corrupt, and block roads, using their own discretion to determine who could go in and out.

Can’t Fight ‘Em: Bring ‘Em Into the Fold

The original reaction of high officials of the Peña Nieto administration was to denounce the militias. The president, for example, pointedly stated: “[W]hatever the denominations of these groups, the practice they have of taking justice into their own hands [is] outside the law, and my government will combat it.” But at the same time, state officials in Michoacan continued hinting that the militia existence could be tolerated. In Guerrero, the contradictions between state and federal-level authorities and among state responses were even more pronounced: on the one hand, the state was providing the self-defense forces with funds, uniforms, and communications equipment, while on the other hand, it was arresting at least some militia members. In the spring of February 2014, as one of Guerrero’s militia groups seized villages on the outskirts of the state capital, Chilpancingo, Mexico City dispatched military battalions and federal police units to stop them from moving into the city itself.

But forcibly dismantling the militias could set off a bloody and problematic fight between them and the federal government, in which assistance from local and state authorities could not necessarily be counted on.

As the process unfolded, federal level officials learned that doing away with the militias was not easy. Negotiating with the militias to effect their disarmament proved especially difficult, as militia members emphasized that they would be subject to retaliation and could only disarm after the criminal gangs, including the key leaders of the Templarios, were arrested. But forcibly dismantling the militias could set off a bloody and problematic fight between them and the federal government, in which assistance from local and state authorities could not necessarily be counted on. After all, the militias’ own narrative claimed that they were merely defending themselves and their families and communities against the brutality of the crime groups because the state had failed to do so, which indeed was often the case. 

The increased deployment of Mexico’s military into Guerrero and Michoacan, which President Peña Nieto boosted by 50 percent at the beginning of 2013, did not slow the formation, spread, and audacity of the militia forces. By the end of 2013, 47 out of Michoacan’s 113 municipalities experienced their presence. In the neighboring state of Guerrero, they operated in more than half of the state’s 81 municipalities by the spring of 2014. Areas that were key Templarios hotbeds in Michoacan, President Nieto in Chilpancingo, Guerrero for presentation of his “Plan Nuevo Guerrero,” which instituted a reconstruction and modernization agenda for the violence plagued state Government of Mexico such as Apatzingan, experienced dramatic firearm battles between the Templarios and the self-defense forces.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Elsewhere, the self-defense forces set up checkpoints. In January 2014, the self-defense forces took over the municipal building in Paracuaro and blocked off entry points to the town, digging in for a battle with the Templarios, until the Federal Police negotiated its own entry. The militias also seized control of a nearby town, La Huerta. In some parts of Michoacan, the Federal Police began operating joint checkpoints with the self-defense forces. Membership in the militias swelled to the thousands, by some reports to as many as 20,000, though no reliable counts were conducted, and the militias had an incentive to exaggerate their strength. To accommodate the militias’ insistence that they could only stop their vigilantism if the government arrested key leaders of the Templarios, the government launched a dragnet in Michoacan and over several months captured key Templario leaders.

When a prominent Templario leader known as “El Tio” was arrested in January 2014, Mexico’s Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced that the government had negotiated a deal with the groups to absorb them into a new state security entity known as the “Rural Defense Corps.” The deal specified that the corps would be temporary and required that the militia leaders would provide the government with a registry of their members.

While not desirable, the Rural Defense Corps concept was likely the least bad option the government had available at that moment.

Putting a time limit on the existence of the militias was a highly appropriate provision since dismantling any unofficial and extralegal forces and vigilantes, however motivated, always needs to be the position of a state adhering to the rule of law. Even so, there were good reasons to doubt the desirability of the arrangement. The fact that the government was not able to prevent and dismantle the militias in the first place, and was essentially left to make a deal with them, was glaring evidence of the weakness of the state in the rural areas of Mexico.

The deal also created a bad precedent, signaling that if one wanted to get on the payroll of the state and take the law and its enforcement into one’s own hands (or cloak one’s extortion and other crimes with legitimacy), one only had to set up a self-defense militia. More immediately, there were good reasons to be skeptical about the accuracy of the member registry handed over to the state by the militia leaders and the ability of the state to do its independent re-vetting of the militia members. Moreover, it was not obvious just how committed the militias were to the deal: a key militia leader, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, was not at the signing, and another militia group from the Ruana area was not only absent, but occupied the government building in the Periban municipality that very same day. In Guerrero, the militias rejected a similar deal to be folded into an official rural defense force, claiming they did not believe Mexico’s federal government was truly motivated to combat the criminal groups.

But, however problematic, the deal to form the Rural Defense Corps was clearly better than the previous policy of just allowing the militias to run loose and act without restraint. While not desirable, the Rural Defense Corps concept was likely the least bad option the government had available at that moment. It was only a matter of time before the unsupervised militias would start engaging in predation on local communities, designating as a criminal anyone who crossed them, arrogating “justice” to themselves, and further damaging the already poor bonds between the state and the population. And it was not too far-fetched to imagine that they might be tempted to take over some illicit markets.

Indeed, such problematic developments surrounding the militias and their speedy descent into going rogue was exposed just a few weeks after the deal was signed. By the middle of March 2014, Mexican authorities arrested one of the top militia leaders, Hipolito Mora, indicting him for the murders of two members of a rival militia faction in Buenavista Tomatlan. Government authorities also detained 28 other vigilante members, accusing them of stealing and appropriating the property of alleged Templario members, such as ranches, land, and horses, while demanding money from local citizens for returning their property stolen by the Templarios. Announcing the arrests, Mexican authorities implied that they would no longer tolerate the militias, now that the government had developed independent intelligence networks to go after the Templarios.

In April 2014, an additional 100 militia members were arrested on charges that they were in fact criminals (some belonging to the Templarios) merely posing as self-defense forces. The militias, including those of other factions, such as the Tepacaltepec group led by Mireles, claimed that the government was unjustly prosecuting them while failing to deliver on its part of the negotiated deal, and that Mexico’s government still could not cope with security in Central Mexico without help from the militias. Another vigilante spokesman, Estanislao Beltran, admitted that some bad elements, including criminals, might have infiltrated the militias, but that the militias would clean their own ranks themselves and continue operating, though preferably under a government hat.

Thus, in April 2014, the federal government announced that the self-defense groups agreed to disarm by May 10 — but the deadline was missed and the militias showed little interest in obeying the basic deal struck in January 2014. At the same time, Jose Manuel Mireles declared that the self-defense groups under his influence would now work with federal forces in cities like Morelia, Uruapan, and Lazaro Cardenas to take down all remaining members of the Templarios, including middle-level managers, thus changing the terms of the deal and parameters of the disarmament of his militias. He also stated that as part of a new deal with the government, the federal authorities agreed to release many of the arrested self-defense group members.

The deal between the government and the militias started breaking down almost as soon as the ink on the paper had dried. Some militias joined the Rural Defense Corps, receiving guns, uniforms, and salaries from the government, while others continued to drag their feet. For the rest of 2014, the Mexican government kept negotiating with the various militia factions, arresting leaders and members of some, only to release them later. Nonetheless, by December 2014, most of the major militia factions in Michoacan, including those of Hipolito Mora and his rival Luis Antonio Torres, known as “El Americano,” were nominally folded into the Rural Defense Corps.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes

But, their nominal presence in the state-sanctioned outfit did not guarantee that the state had adequate control over the behavior of the militias. In the middle of December 2014, Mora’s and Torres’s factions engaged in a bloody shootout with each other in the town of La Ruana, leaving 11 people dead, including Mora’s son. Mora and Torres handed themselves over to state authorities, and later were indicted with homicide and kidnapping charges. Nonetheless, once again, in a powerful indictment of the persisting weakness of Mexico’s justice system and its inability to effectively prosecute perpetrators, both men were later released because of a lack of evidence and other judicial deficiencies.

Equally problematic, violence among and between the Torres and Mora factions and a new offshoot of Los Templarios, Las Viagras, continued into January 2015. Official military and federal police forces also began responding with greater violence toward the militias, including in a notorious incident after one of the militia forces tried to seize the town hall of the city of Apatzingán. In both Michoacan and Guerrero, violence and the rise of the militias effected Mexico’s midterm elections held in June 2015. In Michoacan, the leader of one militia faction, Enrique Hernandez, was assassinated in March as he tried to campaign on the ticket of the left-leaning Movement for National Regeneration, or Morena, party. He had earlier spent three months in jail, but was released for a lack of evidence.

***

Conclusions and Policy Implications

In some ways, the willingness of the government to act against the militias, including to arrest and prosecute some, has been more encouraging than its other anti-crime policies. The original plan of folding them into the Rural Defense Corps was the least bad option; however, the government has failed to effectively enforce the policy with the militias. In Guerrero, the government has not even been able to convince them to sign any deal. In both Michoacan and Guerrero, many of the militias have become important sources of conflict and abuse, hardly acting as a stabilizing force.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Indeed, the Mexican government needs to retain the resolve to monitor the militias diligently; prosecute those who engage in criminal acts, such as extortion and murders; and use any opportunity it can to roll them back and dismantle them — even if such efforts have not been going well so far. Partnering with militias might seem like a seductive option in the short term at a moment of crisis, but spells long-term problems for security, rule of law, and state legitimacy, as much in Mexico as in Colombia or Afghanistan. To the extent that Mexico’s struggle against criminality is not merely about reshuffling who has control and power in the criminal market, but about a broader extension and deepening of the rule of law and accountability in Mexico, any official endorsement of the militias fundamentally contradicts that project.

From a policy perspective, the most salient findings include the following:

  • In Mexico, militias seemed to have the least proclivity toward abuse of local and rival communities when they emerged spontaneously from the local community, faced a particularly abusive external force in the form of outside criminal groups, and if major rifts and conflicts were absent from the community of the militia’s origin.
  • Nonetheless, even then, local community structures have often been unable (or unwilling) to restrain the behavior of the militias.
  • In the absence of effective supervision by and support from strong official forces, such as powerful domestic or outside military or police forces, militias in Mexico quickly turned to predation and abuse, no matter what their original motivations and self-justification.
  • Under President Peña Nieto, the Mexican federal government has made more of an effort to regularize the militias, including by folding them into official, if ad hoc and presumably temporarily-created, police structures. The government also set limits on what kind of activity the militias can engage in and established some vetting procedures of members. But it has been unable to fully implement and enforce these formal rules. Though the Mexican government has been willing to indict and arrest militia leaders for the most notorious abuses perpetrated by their units, such as murders, kidnapping, and extortion, the ineffective prosecution of such crimes has largely subverted their efforts.
  • No matter what their origins and motivations, the rise of militias profoundly changes local balances of power. Consequently, both local and outside actors seek to appropriate the militias or establish rival ones. In Mexico, even when the militias rose to oppose the brutality and extortion of criminal groups, cartels sought to take them over or establish rival “militias.”
  • Such competition over control and establishment of militias was also present in official government structures: Mexico’s municipal and state government officials often had militia policies directly contradictory to those of the federal government. In short, although the formation of militias may have originated as a local matter, the security and political effects the militias had did not remain contained within a small locality or a village. The balances of power they affected were much broader. So were the contagion effects they set off. No matter what their motivations and control mechanisms on paper, militias have a strong tendency to go rogue and be easily appropriated by those whom they purport to fight. Ultimately, the rise and spread of militias diminishes state strength and legitimacy. 

*This is an excerpt from an article that was originally published by the Center for Complex Operations in the security studies journal PRISM Volume 5, Number 4, and is reprinted with permission. Read the full article here

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