Mexican soldiers salute during a ceremony honoring the 201st Fighter Squadron at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, Mexico
Over the past several weeks thousands of Mexican police and military personnel have flooded into the state of Michoacan in an attempt to quell the proliferation of so-called “self-defense forces” among the region’s agrarian localities. In a state that has harbored some of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, residents have begun organizing to create armed vigilante groups in order to protect themselves from what has become routine exploitation at the hands of criminal gangs. The federal government, however, remains deeply suspicious of these rural militias, and has refused to recognize their legitimacy.
Seven years after former president Felipe Calderón officially commenced the Mexican war on drugs, the conflict has killed more than 90,000 people, and has exposed the ever-widening rifts between the federal government, local law enforcement, and the country’s rural citizenry. As more cartels adopt the violent business model of Los Zetas, and as police continue to collude with criminals, members of these fuerzas autodefensas (self-defense forces) have had no choice but to assemble their own security apparatus. Just days after winning the presidential election in December 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto promised an aggrieved electorate that he would create an elite national police force of 10,000 officers in order to liberate the country’s besieged rural communities. More than a year later, such a body has failed to materialize.
While President Peña Nieto is rightly focused on promoting reform, even he must acknowledge that it will take many years to properly remodel the country’s security sector. Until then, his administration cannot afford to compromise the safety and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Threatening to attack local militias is equally as bad, if not worse, than failing to provide adequate police protection to drug-ridden communities. Two weeks ago, federal police shot and killed two civilians demonstrating in support of a local self-defense group. Such incendiary shows of military force not only sap limited resources from the fight against cartels, but also foster local resentment against the government.
The Peña Nieto administration’s initial heavy-handedness in addressing the surge of vigilantism aptly illustrates its security dilemma. The emergence of armed, extralegal organizations poses a serious threat to any government’s monopoly on coercive authority. In the worst of cases, these so-called self-defense groups have undermined the rule of law and have forced countries like Colombia to the brink of failed statehood. Those opposed to the local militias have accused them of conspiring with the cartels, arguing that their advanced weaponry is a sure sign of their illicit ties. While most vigilantes wield no more than a machete and a pistol, it is indeed likely that several groups are under the commission of competing gangs.
Even so, it is the vigilantes’ proximity to the country’s most powerful cartels — in combat and even in collusion — that ought to compel the Peña Nieto administration to finally recognize their untapped utility. If the federal government is to ever establish a reliable network of rural law enforcement, it must co-opt the self-defense forces and register both their members and munitions with federal authorities. In this way, government forces can more likely expose local militias hired to fight for rival cartels, as well as tap into the self-defense forces’ rural expertise in order to navigate a vast countryside rife with cartel members and largely unfamiliar to federal forces.
Yet perhaps the most important reason why the government should collaborate with local militias is to reach out to isolated communities and finally provide them with adequate public services. The Peña Nieto administration has a ways to go in restoring the public’s trust in its law enforcement and criminal justice institutions. To do that, the government must first recognize that the present deficit of trust and feeling of abandonment at the local level has — perhaps more than any other factor — contributed to the rise of local militias. Grassroots vigilantism, in other words, has become among the only means of self-advocacy in remote areas able to hold the government’s attention long enough for it to consider reform. One self-defense group in Oaxaca, for example, disbanded after 48 hours once the regional government vowed to step in and improve public services and police oversight.
As President Peña Nieto aims to modernize his nation’s security apparatus, he must capitalize on this opportunity to integrate his country’s formal and informal law enforcement groups. In spite of the sinister forces working within the Mexican political machine, it is both possible and necessary to coordinate the public and private security sectors in a way that will promote peace, justice, and accountability.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.
Image Attribution: “Mexican Soldiers at Ceremony Honoring 201st Fighter Squadron” by Master Sgt. Adam M. Stump, USAF, licensed under Public Domain