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Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico
Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On
As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On

Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico

The rise of civilian militias to combat lawlessness will make it harder than ever to defeat the cartels unless the government regulates the vigilantes.

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I. Overview

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

As U.S. States Decriminalize Marijuana, Mexico’s Drug War Rages On

Originally published in Open Society Foundation

In August of 2016, Aarón Valencia and his family fled to the United States amid the violence of Mexico’s drug war. Gangs had threatened to force two of his children into organized crime in his home state of Michoacán, and seeking refuge in the United States seemed his only option.

Today, Aarón, a former member of a vigilante militia disarmed by the Mexican government, and his family are being held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, waiting for their asylum claim to be processed. They are among the millions of victims of the drug war that rages in Mexico to this day.

Over the past decade, several U.S. states have moved to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, a shift that has improved the lives of countless Americans. But while legalization is an important component of righting the wrongs of the drug war, it is not the only component—especially for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families who have already been victimized by a century of prohibitionist policies.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs.

Mexico and the United States have long had an asymmetric relationship when it comes to the control of cannabis and other drugs. Two decades ago, California made history by regulating the medicinal use of the plant. That same year, Mexico doubled down on the punitive model by criminalizing narcomenudeo, the small trade of marijuana.

While in the United States, decriminalization has boosted local economies and decreased mass incarceration, in Mexico the presence of the army in the streets has only demonstrated the country’s fragile institutional framework. Homicides, disappearances, forced displacement, human rights violations of people who use drugs, and the diversification of criminal activities have all increased, especially since 2006.

When California legalized recreational marijuana on 8 November 2016, drug policy reformers in Mexico received the news with cautious optimism. Legalization in California would boost Mexican initiatives to reform prohibitionist and punitive drug policies that have cost the country a third of its GDP growth and stalled the life expectancy of Mexican men, who live up to five fewer years than average in drug war–addled states like Chihuahua.

Last December, the Mexican Senate legalized the medical use of marijuana; it now awaits approval in the Chamber of Deputies. In the beginning, however, only imported medical marijuana will be allowed. Recreational consumption will continue to be prosecuted, self-cultivation will remain illegal, and authorizations for local production will only be possible, perhaps in the future, if the Ministry of Health determines their feasibility.

This incongruity between California’s progressive approach to marijuana laws and Mexico’s continued prohibition is creating acute problems for Mexico that will only grow worse.

For one, Mexico’s negative trade balance will continue to widen. As criminal organizations decrease their exports from Mexico in response to falling demand for black market marijuana in the United States, Mexico’s domestic supply of marijuana will rise, driving down prices and boosting domestic consumption, with costs for both the health and penal systems.

While legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico.

Further, as the Mexican cartels diversify their criminal activities away from marijuana, the costs of maintaining a war against them will also rise. Ironically, even as these costs go up, the government will justify intensifying this war as the cartels ramp up their trade of other substances, such as heroin and methamphetamine, and pursue activities like extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

Meanwhile, the peasant communities and migrants that cultivate cannabis will lose their source of income, leaving them more susceptible to recruitment for other criminal activities. And Mexican migrants working on legal, semilegal, and illegal marijuana farms in California will continue to be exploited.

These specialized migrants, coveted for their unique skills, are often unfairly compensated because of their immigration status. One engineer at Chapingo Autonomous University who specializes in agroecological techniques worked for six months at California marijuana farms. He said in a recent interview that he earned less than $15,000 for $100,000 worth of work.

It’s becoming clear that, while legalization has bestowed an array benefits on the United States, it will not repair the damages the war on drugs has caused to Mexico. Legalization in the United States will not give comfort to the grieving Mexican families of the thousands disappeared and forcibly recruited by criminal organizations. It will not provide security to Mexican regions that were once marijuana providers for California. It will not return security to the communities displaced by the violence of Mexico’s drug war. And it absolutely will not provide minimal conditions of security, peace, and justice to the victims of this war, such as Aarón Valencia and his family.

Legalization in the United States can, however, encourage Mexican activists, researchers, and other members of the drug policy community to develop new solutions with renewed intensity now that legalization is becoming a more accepted approach around the world. While the benefits of legalization in the United States may not immediately reach the Mexican people, they could serve as motivation to redouble efforts to bring about positive drug reform that leads to peace and stability in our country.