A member of the Colombian special operations forces jumps onto a special operations craft riverine boat while his teammate provides cover during a hot extraction training exercise
After initially refusing to collaborate with the vigilante-run “self-defense forces” of Michoacan, the Mexican government announced last week that it would grant the groups temporary legal status and reclassify them as the Rural Defense Corps. President Peña Nieto’s decision to integrate the rural militias into his country’s security apparatus represents an important, albeit overdue, tactical shift in his government’s enduring battle against the cartels, but has also incited a firestorm of controversy regarding the viability of such a partnership.
Opponents of the decision have compared the present-day Mexican government to that of Colombia in the early 1990s — aloof and impotent. During that time, Colombia saw a similar rise of so-called “self-defense forces” in response to the terrorist activities of the country’s two main insurgencies, the FARC and ELN. When the vigilantes began employing the same tools as the insurgents — like extortion, murder, and drug trafficking — the Constitutional Court banned them in 1997, but only nominally. These local militias would develop into illicitly funded paramilitary groups that, by the time of their dismantlement in 2005, had assassinated thousands of Colombians thought to be guerrilla sympathizers.
Despite this precedent, Mexico will not devolve into a modern-day Colombia, which was a uniquely gruesome example of the consequences of politically motivated paramilitarism and a botched demobilization. Due to very different contextual factors, it is wrong to assert that Mexico, in its current trajectory, will fall victim to a similar fate.
Contrary to the Colombian experience, self-defense forces in Mexico organized without political backing or direction. By the time that President Peña Nieto summoned the military to confront the vigilantes, they had already earned the ire of government officials of all political stripes. In this respect, the wave of vigilantism that has engulfed Michoacan can be seen as a genuine grassroots movement, relatively free from the corrupt, calculating hands of the Mexican political elite.
In Colombia, on the other hand, the issue of vigilantism never concerned the small-scale mobilization of disgruntled farmers, but rather a generation of opportunistic politicians who managed to sow the seeds of paramilitarism in time to launch a lethal offensive against the country’s political left. Álvaro Uribe, for example, the former far-right president, openly promoted CONVIVIR, a network of anti-guerrilla militias accused of crimes against humanity. In 2007, the so-called “parapolitics” scandal exposed a secret alliance between Uribe’s most prominent political supporters and paramilitary death squads.
Unfortunately, Uribe would also be the man to preside over the demobilization of nearly 30,000 extralegal soldiers between 2003 and 2006, during which time he passed the controversial Justice and Peace Law, which entitled paramilitary fighters to reduced prison sentences — of no more than eight years — if they confessed to their involvement in torture, murder, and other crimes. He also classified paramilitarism as a political offense, refusing to stamp out the link between violence and political contestation.
Opponents of the Rural Defense Corps point to these concessions — namely, the need to compromise justice in exchange for peace — as the inevitable consequence of any collaborative effort with vigilantes. Although this concern is very real, it should not obscure the fact that the end depends on the beginning. If there is no impunity at the start, there will be no need to legislate immunity at the end.
The Mexican government should vet the members of the Rural Defense Corps and incorporate them as full-time law enforcement personnel in rural communities — an effort that will require considerable resources and oversight, but stands a good chance at repaying itself tenfold. This is a tremendous opportunity to fill the ever-growing security vacuum in rural communities and provide a longer term alternative to the government’s intermittent — and often incendiary — military peacekeepers — in other words, a reliable, responsive, and local police force.
To allow paramilitary groups, some say, is to “create a monster like the Hydra.” This was certainly the case in Colombia, where landed elites unleashed a vicious wave of paramilitarism against their political opponents, and then failed to properly extinguish the embers of that legacy. But in Mexico, there is still hope in the enduring integrity of the vigilante movement. If the Rural Defense Corps can stay true to its raison d’etre and keep out of politics, there is a good chance that Mexico won’t follow in Colombia’s well-trodden footsteps.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.