icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line 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 Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp 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
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

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

Migrants walk across the Paso del Norte border bridge after being deported from the United States amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 21, 2020. REUTERS/ Jose Luis Gonzalez

Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.

Under-resourced health systems and poverty, along with the grassroots power of criminal groups and gangs, make Central American countries highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and the knock-on effects of national lockdowns on people’s livelihoods and security. But it is the region’s relentless migratory flows, whether legal or undocumented, forced or voluntary, that are shaping up to be the weakest links in virus prevention campaigns. Above all, deportations from the U.S. and Mexico now threaten to become leading vectors of southward transmission and could spark worsening unrest among fearful residents. Central American governments should respond by urging the U.S. either to pause deportations or to reform how they are handled, ensuring that strict health checks are in place before any more migrants are sent back.

Deportations without Testing

While all three northern Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have banned passenger air and land travel in and out of their countries, deportations have not stopped. U.S. flights carrying deportees to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have proceeded on and off over the past few weeks, though they are now on hold in Guatemala at its government’s request. Meanwhile, deportations overland from Mexico have continued unabated. In total, the U.S. and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April, according to available figures.

Virus testing by U.S. and Mexican migration authorities before deportation, however, has been far from being reliable or robust. Although mass testing in South Korea and elsewhere has consistently shown that most carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been testing only those deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever (efforts will reportedly now be made to test up to 2,000 migrants in custody per month). The Guatemalan government has already confirmed that 100 deportees have tested positive for the virus, one fifth of the entire tally of recorded cases in the country. But the real total could be higher, as Guatemala only started widespread testing of returning migrants, and setting up ad hoc reception centres, after a 26 March deportation flight arrived bearing various infected passengers. Before that, migrants had been invited to observe a two-week voluntary quarantine. Mexico has identified at least sixteen Central American migrants with coronavirus in its northern Tamaulipas department, fourteen of them infected by one migrant previously deported from Houston, Texas.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in the U.S., which host more than 32,000 convicted or illegal migrants, are turning into a hot-spot for COVID-19, intensifying concerns as to the risk of contagion via deportees. At least 360 migrants held by ICE of only 425 who had access to a test turned out to have been infected, while at least 9,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been sidelined from their official duties after testing positive or having been exposed to the virus. The Mexican government has been slow to react to the pandemic and has taken virtually no preventive measures in its migrant detention centres, according to UN officials and humanitarian workers to whom Crisis Group spoke.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico, where a Guatemalan migrant died in a revolt at a migrant detention centre in Tenosique, Tabasco, at the end of March. After this episode, Mexican authorities started releasing most of the 6,000 migrants stranded in detention facilities, and even shut down the Tenosique facility. One humanitarian worker stated that most of these released migrants have been put on buses heading south, and are sometimes abandoned in the town of Tapachula on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, a migration bottleneck. Authorities give them no shelter and have blocked access to public spaces where migrants used to gather. In some cases, Mexican officials reportedly have even incited them to return to their home countries via illegal crossings often employed by criminal traffickers. Meanwhile, representatives of shelters run by non-governmental organisations told Crisis Group that, due to the pandemic, they have scaled down their operations and are unable to receive more incoming migrants.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has asserted that, alongside deportees and detained migrants, higher numbers of Central Americans are independently heading back to their homelands overland from the U.S. and through Mexico, using illegal crossings. UN officials consulted by Crisis Group have identified at least 700 Central Americans trying to return to their countries through various blind spots in Guatemala’s borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras in the past two weeks alone.

Central American Migrants and the U.S. Response

U.S. determination to press ahead with deportations of Central American migrants and refugees despite the pandemic follows years of tightening border and migration policies, notably under President Donald Trump. The draconian migration policy adopted by the Trump administration, to which Mexico signed up fearing tariff reprisals, has aimed above all to stem rising flows of migrants out of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which together account for around 8 per cent of the total legal immigrant population in the U.S., and 15 per cent of the illegal, according to Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Migration toward the U.S. has long been an escape valve for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing grim living conditions and chronic insecurity. But over the past couple of years, the lethal mix of gang-related violence, economic stagnation and prolonged, climate change-induced drought has spurred a sharp increase in northward migration, urged along further by concern that the Trump administration will completely prohibit entry into the U.S. U.S. authorities apprehended more than 600,000 Central American migrants – or almost 2 per cent of the region’s entire population – at the southern border with Mexico between October 2018 and September 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Between 27 and 48 of the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran interviewees in a recent survey by the Inter-American Development Bank cited violence or insecurity as their main reason for making the journey.

In response, the Trump administration has increased border patrols, established stricter requirements for obtaining asylum or visas, and put pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to process asylum requests filed in the U.S. (through so-called Migrant Protection Protocols and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements). According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, these measures have helped reduce the number of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. southern border by 70 per cent since numbers peaked in May 2019. Mexico’s deployment of the National Guard to its southern border with Guatemala in June 2019 also curbed the flow northward. In 2019 alone, the U.S. and Mexico deported more than 250,000 Central Americans, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S. On 21 March, the president allowed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to immediately expel illegal migrants found at the border. As a result, they have turned back at least 10,000 migrants to Mexico in a matter of weeks. On 22 April, Trump went further, signing an executive order halting immigration for green card seekers for at least 60 days.

Tough measures imposed by the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments to contain the pandemic, including border shutdowns, curfews and restrictions on internal movement, have further complicated the journey north. These measures have “only raised the cost of bribes officials expect from those who can afford it”, said a humanitarian worker in a shelter in southern Mexico. “And they’ve pushed those who can’t to more dangerous and remote trails, where they risk getting extorted or kidnapped”.

The Need for a Coordinated Response

Poor coordination among the U.S., Mexico, Central American states and UN agencies, as well as the lack of proper health checks in U.S. and Mexico migrant facilities, could have dire effects across a region ill prepared to combat the pandemic. None of Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador has ever managed to provide returnees with proper resettlement and protection services, and all three are now channelling most available resources toward strengthening health systems. Undetected COVID-19 cases among deportees could spread the virus in the poor and often violent areas which they left and to which they often return. This risk is already triggering unease, violence and stigmatisation of returnees. In one recent episode in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, locals first threatened to set fire to a centre designed to host some 80 deportees, and then set off in hot pursuit of several who had reportedly tried to escape.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations. Both countries, however, are likely to keep toughening law enforcement, including deportations, to curb migration north, especially in view of Trump’s re-election bid. Therefore, the urgent priority for Central American countries should be to negotiate with the U.S. and Mexico a safer, more orderly and coordinated return process, including far stricter health measures in U.S. and Mexico migrant detention facilities, stepped-up testing and possibly a quarantine period prior to deportation. In parallel, the region’s governments should seek UN agencies’ and humanitarian organisations’ assistance in setting up decent reception centres and improving protocols that ensure fair treatment and resettlement of returnees. They should also maintain channels of dialogue with communities that receive returning migrants, ensuring that they follow strict quarantine rules so as to minimise the risk of violent backlash. Continuing to deport migrants without taking these steps and in disregard of the potential for contagion is a recipe for turmoil.