Murder of Mexico Vigilante Leader Underscores Legalization Issues

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The murder of a Rural Defense Force commander in Mexico has reignited the debate over the legalization of vigilante forces, highlighting the lack of resources and protection afforded to those who have laid down their weapons to join official units.

On October 16, Felipe Diaz Avila, the commander of the Rural Defense Unit in Coalcoman, Michoacan, was ambushed and shot by an alleged hired assassin, reported El Universal. He died two days later in a hospital in the city of Morelia as a result of the gunshot wounds.

Michoacan State Prosecutor Jose Martin Godoy Castro said that four individuals, who are currently in police custody, planned the murder because Diaz’s unit had interfered with their activities, which authorities believe were illicit, reported El Occidental. The four detainees allegedly hired another individual, identified as Jorge Lizardo, to carry out the murder in exchange for around $15,000 and a tow truck.

In the weeks prior to his death, Diaz made the news when he told local media that Michoacan’s vigilantes were better off before the creation of the state-sanctioned Rural Defense Force. He said that while the self-defense forces had been able to launch surprise operations in the mountains, the official units had to get permission from the government. Diaz added that authorities had abandoned his unit, leaving them with minimal resources, and only appeared for photo shoots.

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Diaz’s murder — and his statements about the lack of government support — add to claims that authorities have failed to adequately equip and train the units in the Rural Defense Force. Other vigilante leaders, including Jose Manuel Mireles, who was arrested in June, have accused the Mexican government of failing to uphold its end of the legalization agreement reached with self-defense forces in January.

The government officially launched the Rural Defense Force in May as a way to legitimize self-defense forces that emerged with the alleged purpose of combating criminal groups. However, thousands of vigilantes have either opted out of the process, been excluded from participating, or returned to unofficial vigilante groups after joining the official force. If the government fails to provide the units with the necessary resources, incidents like Diaz’s murder will only increase the opposition to participating in the state-sanctioned force. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

Failing to support the self-defense movement could also be politically costly. Mireles’ arrest was followed by protests and solidarity marches, and a May survey showed that 70 percent of respondents had a positive image of vigilantes. According to Borderland Beat, Michoacan residents took to social media after Diaz’s death to criticize authorities for their lack of support, calling Michoacan Security Commissioner Alfredo Castillo the “biggest criminal of Michoacan.” 

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