A new report examines the causes and likely effects of the wave of vigilante groups popping up in Mexico, faulting the government of Enrique Peña Nieto for failing to cobble together a workable response.
The report comes from International Crisis Group (ICG), a high-profile global NGO that just recently began researching Mexico. According to the report, the self-defense groups, which have emerged in violence-addled states with increasing frequency over the past year, represent a significant complication to an already challenging climate. As the authors explain in the opening paragraph:
Some of these militias contain well-meaning citizens and have detained hundreds of suspected criminals. However, they challenge the government’s necessary monopoly on the use of force to impart justice. As the militias spread, there is also concern some are being used by criminal groups to fight their rivals and control territory.
As InSight Crime and others have noted, the vigilante groups began operating in Cheran, Michoacan, where they sought to rein in illegal logging by the Familia Michoacana. However, they have since emerged, typically in opposition to the dominant local drug group, in cities across Michoacan and Guerrero, two southern coastal states that serve key functions to northward trafficking. The vigilantes have adopted a variety of tactics in chasing out the local criminal organizations, from arresting suspects to threatening police suspected of corruption to forcing local youths linked to mafia groups to clean the town plaza.
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In its report, ICG notes that the emergence of these self-defense groups ultimately stems from a basic failure of the Mexican state over the past several years: it has lost the monopoly over the use of violence, and as a result, it is no longer able to guarantee a reasonable expectation of security among its citizens. This is evidenced in tens of thousands of murders, in the dropping levels of support for the federal government, and now in the steady growth of such extra-legal organizations.
The growth of vigilante groups complicates a security situation that is already very fraught in Guerrero (home of the nation’s deadliest city, Acapulco) and Michoacan. Should they emerge throughout the country, the state could be further marginalized, and Mexico’s attempts to recover some sense of the pre-Calderon peace will be that much harder. However, because their upgrowth stems from such a basic failure of government, it is hard to treat the groups as just another organization operating outside the law and crack down accordingly. Furthermore, there exists some claim to the self-defense groups’ legitimacy. As ICG points out, Article 2 of the Constitution guarantees autonomy and self determination for indigenous communities, as many of those in Guerrero and Michoacan are.
That is likely a large reason why the government’s response to the groups has been so uneven. Guerrero’s government has taken steps to legalize the groups and bring them inside the formal governing structure, while in Michoacan, the governor was recently quoted as saying that the self-defense groups are “fading away.” The government’s reaction, incidentally, mimics the response of the criminal gangs. They too have adopted a variety of techniques in dealing with the new players, from ignoring them and tarring them as puppets of rival criminal organizations, to attacking them and initiating PR campaigns against them.
The longer the vigilantes operate on Mexican soil, the deeper the toehold they will have established within the local underworld, especially if new groups continue to pop up. This would essentially create a new class of stakeholders with a potentially very different set of interests, and could complicate attempts at pacification. Such an issue is especially important in Guerrero, where the already massive number of criminal groups has confounded different security plans.
ICG points out that Michoacan and Guerrero have long histories of social upheaval, which helps explain why the self-defense groups have emerged with greatest frequency in this region, even as the violence has raged more intensely in other areas, such as northern Mexico. Ultimately, this is encouraging in terms of efforts to contain the self-defense groups, as much of Mexico — including the ever-turbulent border region — has seen a far more muted version of these social conflicts.