Police forces in Mexico’s state of Michoacán have increasingly been subject to attacks, a reminder of the ongoing security crisis affecting the region and the government’s shortsighted response to local vigilante groups.
At least seven attacks against law enforcement have been carried out in Mexico’s western state of Michoacán since September 2016, five of which resulted in officers’ deaths, reported Excelsior.
The violence has targeted local police directors, deputy directors and former chiefs, and has taken place in the municipalities of Villamar, Turicato, Penjamillo, Tiquicheo, Sahuayo and Ziracuaretiro.
While authorities are yet to identify the individuals behind the attacks, many of the incidents reportedly followed a similar pattern, with heavily armed men ambushing the officers’ cars on public roads.
The latest incident took place on May 26, when local police chief Bernardino Gómez Ávila and two of his bodyguards were shot during an ambush on the Siglo XXI highway. The attack, however, left no one dead.
Speaking with El País, José Manuel Mireles, the founder of a vigilante group that fought against the Knights Templar criminal organization in Michoacán, said the security conditions in his home state and across Mexico have severely deteriorated.
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“The whole nation is much worse now than when I was sent to prison,” Mireles told El Pais, only a few days after being released from jail where he spent nearly three years in pretrial detention for weapons charges.*
“If we were to mobilize again today there would be millions, not thousands, of people who would stand up with us to defend themselves,” the former vigilante leader said.
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The increasing number of attacks against police forces in Michoacán and the statements by Mireles spotlight the unresolved security crisis in the western state, in part as a result of the government’s failure to address the vigilante issue.
The government’s initial reaction to self-defense militias in Michoacán was to tacitly accept the vigilantes’ presence and operations. Eventually, in May 2014, the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto launched the Rural Defense Force, a security institution designed to legalize Michoacán’s militias, and vowed to incarcerate all armed civilians who refused to join the new body.
The creation of the Rural Defense Force led to a split between Michoacán’s vigilantes, as some leaders, including Mireles, refused to submit to the government’s plan and were eventually sent to prison.
But the institutionalization of vigilantism only exacerbated Michoacán’s security crisis. Violence and extrajudicial killings increased, while the militias became increasingly involved in illegal activities. A panoply of new self-defense groups began to emerge after the demobilization of Mireles’s forces, plunging the state deeper into chaos.
Michoacán’s experience could offer some valuable lessons to a nearby country currently grappling with the fate of its own vigilante groups. Armed community groups in El Salvador are asking authorities for legal recognition as they take on gangs in areas where the state has failed to provide adequate security. Mexico’s example, however, serves as a reminder that vigilantism is not a sustainable replacement for strong state institutions, and tolerating or cooperating with vigilante groups can actually exacerbate existing security challenges.
* Correction, May 30: An earlier version of this article inaccurately implied that Mireles had been convicted on the weapons charges. This article has been updated to clarify that Mireles was not convicted, but rather was being held in pretrial detention.