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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
Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State
Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State

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

Want to Tackle Violent Crime in Mexico? Then Start in Veracruz State

Originally published in Miami Herald

Decades ago, while training for U.S. Peace Corps service in El Salvador, I traveled into the rain forest of the state of Veracruz to the tiny village of Zongolica. Most of the men and all of the women and children spoke only Nahuatl, survived on subsistence farming and faithfully maintained their culture despite four centuries of Spanish influence. There was little crime, much less violence, in the state — and a strong sense of community, particularly in Zongolica, where adobe bricks were made cooperatively for each other’s homes.

Today, Veracruz is a battleground where five major cartels and multiple smaller criminal gangs kill for control over lucrative cocaine drug routes, oil pipelines and human trafficking networks — with the Zetas and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación emerging as the most dangerous and successful organizations. The state apparatus, far from preserving law and order, has been warped to protect criminal interests. Veracruz state, rich in natural resources, could be an economic powerhouse but is instead near bankruptcy. In 2016, homicides here increased by 123 percent — the second highest in the country.

There is a better way to help fix rampant crime and terror in Mexico, starting with Veracruz.

President Donald Trump reportedly proposed sending over the U.S. military to take care of “bad hombres” south of the border, according to a leaked excerpt of his recent telephone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Trump’s unilateral offer — coming alongside demands that Mexico pay for a border wall to stop illegal migration, a wave of deportations, and a threat to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement—has revived memories of U.S. gunboat diplomacy and prompted “Gringo go home” sentiments south of the border. In any case, most knowledgeable observers agree that a military response to the cartels will backfire.

There is a better way to help fix rampant crime and terror in Mexico, starting with Veracruz. The state’s new governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares, has promised to clean house and prosecute those responsible for criminal atrocities. He will need serious national and international support to deliver.

Yunes’ election in 2016 marked the end of 80 years of state rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). His predecessor, Javier Duarte Ochoa, fled amid charges against his administration of embezzling around $650 million and of having links to the cartels. Yunes, of the National Action Party (PAN), may have the political will to root out crime and corruption, but he has few state or federal resources to address the crisis.

Since the transition, more than 100 mass graves have been discovered in one site alone, and human rights groups and the new Veracruz Truth Commission allege state complicity in the disappearances of 5,000 individuals, many times the official government count. A new report by International Crisis Group, based on interviews with families of the victims and human rights groups, estimated that the total number of disappearances could be as high as 20,000.

The United States should recognize that its own economic and security interests would be well served by cooperation, not confrontation, with Mexico...

Veracruz reflects the nationwide epidemic of violence and corruption weighing down Peña Nieto’s administration.

The country’s much-heralded transition to a more open democracy at the end of the 1990’s was undermined by the establishment of drug trafficking routes from the Andes converging in Mexico as the last stop before the U.S. market. Mexico’s civilian police were no match for the firepower of the cartels, who were happy to pay whatever it cost to smuggle weapons from the United States.

The country’s “war on drugs” has resulted in an explosion of violence, as the cartels fought back against Mexican authorities and against each other, at times with the complicity of rogue security forces. There have been at least 65,000 victims since 2006, with no end in sight.

The United States should recognize that its own economic and security interests would be well served by cooperation, not confrontation, with Mexico to tackle organized crime and corruption.

A more effective response in Veracruz, and the rest of Mexico, depends on providing carefully vetted federal technical support and redirecting U.S. counter-drug aid to strengthen local law enforcement, the state attorney’s office, and civil society organizations like the Truth Commission. They can start by investigating the thousands of disappearances and bringing those responsible to justice.