Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico
Latin America Briefing N°29
28 May 2013
A rapid expansion in 2013 of vigilante militias – civilian armed groups that claim to fight crime – has created a third force in Mexico’s ongoing cartel-related violence. 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. The Peña Nieto administration needs to develop a coherent policy for dealing with the vigilantes, so that it can work with authentic community policing projects while stopping the continued expansion of unregulated armed groups; this also requires demonstrating that the state has sufficient capacity to restore law and order on its own. If the government fails to deal with this issue, militias could spread across the country, triggering more violence and further damaging the rule of law.
President Peña Nieto had expected to have to cope with the well-armed, ruthless cartels that dominate portions of the country, as well as the problems presented by uncoordinated national, state and municipal law enforcement bodies and a legacy of impunity. The appearance of a growing number of armed groups in at least nine of the 31 states, from close to the U.S. border to the south east, however, has added another dangerous level of complexity to the security challenge. Their epicentre, on which this briefing concentrates, is in the Pacific states of Guerrero and Michoacán, where thousands of armed men participate in a range of vigilante organisations. There have been more than 30 killings there since January 2013, either by or against the vigilantes, and they have become increasingly worrying hotspots of insecurity. While the vigilante killings are still only a fraction of the more than 5,000 cartel-related murders that took place across Mexico in the first five months of Peña Nieto’s administration, the concern is that this new type of violence could expand across the land.
The violence has coincided with protests against government reforms in these states, including road blockades and looting of food trucks that are part of a broader challenge to authority. The government launched a major security offensive in Michoacán in May that has weakened the militia presence there, at least in the short term. In Guerrero, the state government has made agreements with some militia leaders in an attempt to lessen their impact. However, various vigilante groups are still active, and some of the core problems of insecurity that led to their presence are unresolved.
The vigilantism issue is complicated by the fact that many communities, particularly indigenous, have a centuries-old tradition of community policing. Many groups have shown themselves to be successful and have demonstrated legitimate ways of providing security. However, it is legally ambiguous how far such community groups can go in bearing arms and imparting justice. Furthermore, many of the new militias copy the language and claim the same rights as these community police, even though they do not come from a local tradition or are not even rooted in indigenous communities.
The government needs to work with the authentic and unarmed community police and clearly define the parameters of what they can and cannot do. Some rules can be established on the basis of guidelines that are being developed under state and federal laws or by expanding agreements being worked out between state governments and community leaders. In some cases, the government needs to require the disarmament of vigilante groups; in yet others, it needs to more aggressively detain and prosecute militias with criminal links. But the government also needs to significantly improve security in all the communities where militias have been formed. Many residents have taken up arms because the state has systematically failed to protect them. The clamour for security is legitimate; but justice is better served through functional state institutions than the barrels of private guns.
Mexico City/Bogotá /Brussels, 28 May 2013