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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
Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government
Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government

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

Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government

Combatting organised crime has been the centrepiece of President López Obrador’s governing platform, but murder rates in 2019 are set to reach an all-time high. In this excerpt from the first update of our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support the Mexican government’s turn toward comprehensive security reforms and peacebuilding policies. 

Rising violent crime rates remain the greatest threat to public security and stability in Mexico. Over the past twelve years, large criminal syndicates have fragmented into smaller groups, sparking a plethora of lethal, region-specific armed conflicts. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in office since December, has made the reduction of violence a centrepiece of his governing platform. But homicide rates in 2019 are on track to surpass the record levels of previous years, peaking in states such as Guanajuato and Jalisco. The tide of killings is partly due to the breakdown of cartels into approximately 200 smaller armed groups, which has generated competition among those groups and undercut the ability of crime bosses to enforce discipline. At the same time, the Mexican state, and its security services in particular, continue to suffer from corruption, collusion with illegal actors or even criminal capture of local police forces. In the absence of deep reforms to the country’s security and justice institutions, Mexico is likely to continue suffering enormous violence. President López Obrador still enjoys the political capital and popularity to set a new course, but his administration has yet to lay out clear policies toward critical issues such as scaling back the role of the military in providing security and curbing human rights violations by the security forces.

As the EU and its member states define their cooperation with the new government, they can help address Mexico’s security crisis by:

  • Recommending that Mexico reframe its “war on drugs” as a set of internal armed conflicts, which would allow a shift to regionally tailored security policies, including peacebuilding tools such as young combatant demobilisation in the country’s most embattled regions.
  • Encouraging the Mexican federal government to return public security provision to civilian police forces following reinvigorated efforts to reform the security and justice system. These reforms should stress above all the implementation of effective oversight and accountability mechanisms led by independent civilian appointees with the power to impose disciplinary measures on state actors, most urgently police, armed forces, and prosecutorial services.
  • Backing the creation of elite task forces, comprising thoroughly vetted and trained officers, within the federal police and prosecutorial bodies to give oversight and accountability mechanisms teeth by specialising in investigating corruption, collusion, and violence within security forces. These units should also help protect local reform efforts. 
  • Supporting security reform through technical assistance and sharing best practices with Mexican policymakers, including during the regular political dialogues on security and justice between the EU and Mexico. Specifically, the EU could offer assistance for local mediation and demobilisation efforts, women-led victims’ collectives searching for disappeared persons, the National Search System for People, and promising police reform initiatives at the local level.

The Search for Security and Accountability

Though Mexico’s security crisis has mutated, government policies remain anchored in the narrative of a “war on drugs” against professionalised trafficking cartels that the state expects to win largely through military might. Offensives against specific criminal targets have succeeded on their own terms: more than have been 150 arrested or killed over the past twelve years and many larger criminal structures fractured as a result. But insecurity remains rampant. The government’s failure to re-establish and strengthen local civilian institutions has allowed smaller criminal groups to continue operating and re-emerge in even more violent ways. In Michoacán, for example, at least a dozen armed groups broke from a larger organisation following a federal civil-military intervention launched in 2013. Similar patterns are evident elsewhere: with neither the state nor any single criminal actor dominant enough to impose order, smaller groups have become locked in conflict over patches of markets, territories, and populations.

The result is an expanding patchwork of region-specific armed conflicts. The toll on civilians is high, with ordinary citizens caught up in the crossfire, families of criminals targeted and internal displacement on the rise. Violence is exacerbated by cycles of personal revenge, for instance in the mountains of Guerrero, where blood feuds, involving killings and forced disappearances, can stretch on for decades. Criminal groups exploit entrenched networks of corruption to collude with state officials, with public institutions becoming participants in criminal conflicts. In some regions, these groups bribe security forces to act against their rivals and overlook their own crimes.

Ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings should be a priority.

Reversing Mexico’s growing violence requires that the state undertake reforms at federal and local levels. This would require negotiating gradual civilian scrutiny of the military’s conduct and abuses. However, the López Obrador administration’s dependence – at least in the immediate term – on the army and navy to provide public security hinders such efforts. The creation of a National Guard as the cornerstone of López Obrador’s new security policy in March 2019 appears unlikely to help. Indeed, with that force’s core personnel and high command stemming from the military, its design and creation suggest that López Obrador has opted for greater militarisation in the hope of quick results rather than to take on the uphill task of creating effective oversight of the conduct and performance of Mexico’s security forces.

Exactly how the government will work to stop abusive conduct in the security forces and dismantle criminal structures within them is unclear. Despite López Obrador´s promises, the government has produced no concrete proposals to monitor or prevent future human rights abuses perpetrated by the police or army. Ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, which have been documented by the UN High Commission on Human Rights and others, should be a priority. Exposing those most responsible for criminal misconduct in the security services requires finding ways of protecting lower-ranking officers forced into criminal activity by their commanders. As the government establishes the National Guard it should ensure adequate training for new officers and enforce internal rules through the establishment of independent civilian oversight with teeth, potentially in the shape of ombudspersons with disciplinary powers, acting in close coordination with prosecutorial task forces dedicated to investigating wrongdoing by the security forces.

Aside from these reforms, the Mexican government must look beyond centralised strategies and the use of force to resolve the country’s internal conflicts. Earlier security policies, such as the military offensive against organised crime initiated in 2006 and the creation of a new Federal Police in 2009, have emphasised grand, top-down solutions. But tackling localised violence requires a regionally tailored approach.

Given fiscal constraints on the Mexican state and flawed federal institutions, targeted support for promising local security and justice reforms and peacebuilding initiatives offers an alternative. Such local initiatives include, for example, recent efforts to reconstruct police forces in municipalities such as Xalapa in Veracruz, where police have worked closely with independent security experts but are unable to confront rising criminal violence on their own. The government should also strengthen initiatives, such as those led by community organisations, to mediate among feuding armed groups and clans to interrupt cycles of revenge killing. These efforts should also endeavour to reach local agreements on how to demobilise young combatants, who are the main victims and perpetrators of lethal violence and form the operational backbone of armed groups. Any move in this direction would have to establish when pledges of non-repetition and redress for victims by former combatants constitute sufficient grounds for offering support to get a job, resume normal civilian life and, where necessary, benefit from reduced sentences and state protection against criminal leaders.

Over 40,000 have disappeared in Mexico according to the most recent official figures.

At the federal level, one important step to protect and nurture such local reforms and initiatives would be the establishment of elite task forces within police and prosecutorial services. Such task forces, by providing focused support and coordinating tightly with each other and with local authorities, could help contain the inevitable violent opposition from criminal leaders who will resist any attempts to restrict their activities. In conjunction with independent civilian oversight within security forces, they could also spearhead efforts to tackle corruption, collusion and illegal violence within the police and the newly established National Guard, and pave the way for an eventual return of public security provision in Mexico into civilian hands.

The recent reactivation of Mexico’s National Search System for People – over 40,000 have disappeared in Mexico according to the most recent official figures – with search commissions to be installed in each federated state, offers another opportunity. If equipped with sufficient funds as well as a robust mandate, these commissions could identify remains in clandestine graves and seek to clarify the circumstances leading to the disappearances. This would help shed light on local conflict patterns, foster victims’ access to truth and justice, help restore communities torn apart by violence and rebuild trust between state and society. Such measures are particularly important given the López Obrador administration’s estrangement from civil society after its February announcement that the state was ending all funding for civil society organisations. In particular, support for women-led victims’ collectives searching for disappeared people through the National Search System would mark a clear commitment to collaboration with civic initiatives for an urgent but previously neglected cause. It would also boost proceedings in criminal investigations by incorporating the knowledge acquired by women’s collectives over years of searching for loved ones despite a lack of state support.

How the EU Can Support Mexico’s Reforms

In its political dialogue with Mexico, the EU should express support for López Obrador’s turn toward comprehensive security policies, including policies oriented toward peacebuilding, and recommend that his initial efforts be extended in order to tackle the reality of multiple internal armed conflicts. It should recommend concentrating resources on a limited number of pilot projects aiming to test specific regional policies toward insecurity, including municipal police reforms as well as mediation and demobilisation initiatives involving local communities and civil society organisations.

EU support should reinforce both local initiatives and critical federal level reforms. The reactivated National Search System for People merits particular attention and support, given its potential role in establishing the truth as to the violence that has ravaged various regions, restoring trust in the state and offering a model for future collaboration with civil society. Supporting women’s collectives searching for the disappeared, for instance through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), represents a potent practical and symbolic measure aimed at backing the government’s efforts to address past injustices. This would also highlight the essential role of civil society in reducing violence in Mexico at a time when its relations with the new government are under strain. At the federal level, the EU should provide technical support and political backing for creating the elite task forces within federal police and prosecutorial bodies. At the same time, it should emphasise the importance of civilian oversight of the armed forces, calling for civilian jurisdiction in the case of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings involving the military and greater overall transparency through the creation of civilian ombudsmen offices.