Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
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
Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want
Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want

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.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

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

Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want

Originally published in Los Angeles Times

“Mexico is a critical partner,” President Obama reminded reporters during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on July 22, “and is critically important to our own well-being.” The two presidents praised not only their countries’ immense cross-border trade but also bilateral collaboration on energy, the environment and counter-narcotics. Left unmentioned in their opening remarks was another crucial way Mexico is helping its northern neighbor: as a buffer between the U.S. and Central America’s Northern Triangle, where gang violence, chronic corruption and endemic poverty drives hundreds of thousands from their homes each year.

Two years after the flow of unaccompanied Central American children across the Rio Grande generated U.S. headlines, the humanitarian crisis continues.  Today it plays out mostly in Mexico, whose government has become the region’s “deporter-in-chief,” last year sending back 166,000 Central American migrants, including about 30,000 children, more than twice as many as the 75,000 deported from the United States. By detaining and deporting migrants, Mexico has in effect become the “wall” certain politicians are calling for — which of course does nothing to solve the underlying problems.

Over the past decade, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have seen homicides spiral out of control, approaching levels of bloodshed last seen during the armed conflicts of the 1980s. Gangs dominate major cities and many smaller towns, forcing even the poor to pay extortion. Most chilling for families is the forced recruitment of young boys and girls.  Saying no to the gangs, say refugees interviewed along the border, would mean a death sentence.

The dangers do not end for those who manage to cross into Mexico. Undocumented migrants make perfect victims.  Fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report even violent crimes, such as robbery or rape.  Groups specializing in extortion and kidnapping also know that many migrants have relatives in the United States who can be tapped for ransom money.

Irregular migration, swollen by forced displacement, ends up fueling organized crime and corruption.  No longer can a migrant pay guides – known as coyotes or polleros (chicken herders) – just enough to be smuggled across the US border. Now they must rely on networks that charge thousands of dollars to assure safe passage across territories controlled by various criminal bosses, while paying officials to look the other way.

Regional leaders are finally recognizing that the massive outflow of people from Central America is much more than migration as usual.  The United States has agreed to expand efforts to admit refugees directly from the region so they avoid a long, dangerous journey north. Under an initiative announced July 26, a program previously limited to the under-age children of Central Americans lawfully in the U.S. will now include siblings who are over 21, as well as caregivers. Those most vulnerable could be relocated in Costa Rica while awaiting approval for entry into the United States.

This initiative, however, is unlikely to discourage the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who enter Mexico each year — in part because the country is no longer just a transit country, but also a destination in its own right. Petitions for refugee recognition have more than doubled, straining Mexico’s capacity to process them fairly and efficiently.  Although its refugee commission is offering asylum to a larger proportion of applicants, the numbers deemed eligible still represent only a fraction of those needing protection. 

In the long run, Central American governments must address the economic and institutional failings that turn young people into gangsters and end the impunity of both criminal leaders and corrupt officials.

In the immediate run, the United States should help its “critical partner” stop the cycle of deportation and re-migration by providing Mexico with the resources it needs to shelter asylum applicants, adjudicate their claims efficiently and fairly, and then resettle them where they can lead productive lives.