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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
We Don’t Need A Wall To Manage Migration From Mexico
We Don’t Need A Wall To Manage Migration From Mexico

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

We Don’t Need A Wall To Manage Migration From Mexico

Originally published in Miami Herald

Deportations from Mexico and the U.S. will not stop Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence. Instead of building a wall, the U.S. should help Mexico provide safe, secure reception areas on its southern border for Central American migrants.

Here is an interesting question for President Donald Trump: Who deports more Central American migrants, the United States or Mexico? The answer is Mexico by a long shot.

In 2015, Mexico, without a wall — but with better surveillance in collaboration with the U.S.-deported 165,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The United States deported 74,478 Central Americans the same year.

So antagonizing the people of Mexico and the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto with a constant refrain of, “You will pay for the wall” may not be the best way for Trump to lower the number of migrants crossing the southwest border into the U.S. Mexico has been willing to cooperate with the U.S. to prevent illegal migration in the past when relations were good. The future may be a lot different.

The more effective and less costly way to reduce the flow of refugees and migrants to the U.S. is to help Mexico provide safe, secure reception areas on its southern border for Central American migrants, and transportation back to their home countries for those who do not qualify for refugee status.

Deportation will continue to be a revolving door unless the Northern Triangle countries also are helped to do something different than dumping the migrants — particularly children — back into the neighborhoods where the maras (gangs) have taken homicide rates to world-record levels.

Last year, in its report Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, The International Crisis Group found that in the first half of 2016, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended almost 42,000 unaccompanied children on our southwest border, about 15 percent of the total detained. Today, that trend continues.

The only lasting answer to illegal migration is to address the conditions of poverty, violence and criminal impunity that force families to flee their homes in Central America.

Crisis Group also found the drug cartels that dominate cocaine trafficking through the Central American corridor to Mexico and U.S. markets are taking over the traditional “coyote” migration routes. Often, they siphon young migrant girls, boys and women to brothels and other way-points of human trafficking.

Mexico and the U.S. have treaty obligations to ensure that those migrants with a well-founded fear of persecution will have the ability to make their case for refugee status and asylum. In the interim, Mexico has a humanitarian visa that it can offer; the U.S. has Temporary Protected Status.

The only lasting answer to illegal migration is to address the conditions of poverty, violence and criminal impunity that force families to flee their homes in Central America. While Mexican migration to the U.S. has dropped, worsening economic conditions there will push impoverished Mexicans north.

In order to properly address the migration crisis, President Trump should reverse the current downward slide in relations with Mexico Everyone recognizes that the U.S. has an interest in controlling its borders to ensure public security and safety. However, building a wall and demanding that Mexico pay for it are unlikely to produce the desired results.

President Trump should instead draw on his experience as a businessman to strengthen the Alliance for Prosperity program—a potentially innovative joint regional plan involving the U.S., El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The Republican Congress backed the program with nearly $1 billion in each of the last two years to support efforts to root out corruption, reduce poverty, and create jobs in Central America.

Most scholars and law enforcement leaders argue that, with policy changes to tackle corruption and end impunity, a continuing U.S. commitment of $1 billion a year over the next five years to finance small business, jobs, education and criminal justice reform in Central America will yield a far better return on investment in reducing migration. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than the estimated $12- to $40 billion cost of building a 2,000-mile-long border wall — which no one wants to pay for.