In Mexico, Self-Defense Groups Move to Fill Security Vacuum
Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Trend Lines, “Basically, the police have broken down in a lot of these municipalities, and organized crime has moved in.”
Yet while the groups claim to fight violence and extortion where the Mexican government can’t or won’t, there are concerns that some groups are committing human rights abuses or possibly cooperating with criminals, especially in light of reports last week that a group in Mexico’s western Michoacán state appeared to have links to a drug cartel.
“You need to know where the funding is coming from,” said Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, which monitors and analyzes organized crime in the Americas. “Is it a business group, a military group, a landowning group, a drug trafficking group? It makes a big difference in what you think about these groups and what you think their real ends are.”
Isacson explained that the existence of long-term funding sources will in part determine whether these groups continue to grow in significance. “If they find a flow of money where it actually becomes a job and pays OK, then it will grow enormously,” he said. “If these are campesinos in a few towns doing this on a part-time basis, donating their time and holding shotguns, it is not going to grow very much.”
Dudley said another important variable is how the Mexican government under President Enrique Peña Nieto reacts to the rise of such groups in areas of limited government control. Dudley said it was possible the government could move to fill the power vacuums in which they operate.
“The problem at the heart of the matter is that the government is not providing the basic necessities of the people with regard to security and judicial systems,” he said. “If those systems are failing, and failing in a widespread manner, then you are going to have citizens arming themselves.”
“These places we are talking about are almost all really remote, not near big cities or along main roads,” said Isacson. He added that self-defense groups seem to be rising mostly in areas where it is “safe enough to form a self-defense group but neglected enough that there is a reason to have one.”
Both experts also emphasized that some of the groups are better equipped than others, and that while the Michoacán vigilante group currently in the spotlight may be backed by narcotraffickers, others arose spontaneously and lack outside support.
“Most of the ones we’ve seen are ragtag,” Isacson said, painting a picture of men in their mid-50s with black masks and hunting rifles.
He added that some of the groups appear to be more interested in activities that resemble extortion rather than combating drug cartels.
Others have targeted illegal activities other than drug trafficking. For example, Isacson said, in 2011 in Cherán, Mexico, a group of women attacked illegal loggers in order to protect their forests.
Some of the “community police” organizations even go so far as arresting other citizens. Isacson mentioned a community police group in Ayutla de los Libres, a municipality in Guerrero, Mexico, that had detained 39 men and women accused of crimes including extortion and kidnapping, before eventually handing 20 of them to state authorities and releasing the rest.
“They got brazen enough to start arresting people and holding them without any traditional authority whatsoever, which starts to sound like Colombia, but without the reports of abuse yet,” he said.
“Things like land grabs or social cleansing [in Mexico], we haven’t heard of that yet. But it’s only a matter of time in my view,” Isacson warned, explaining that there is not a check on the power of such groups in Mexico. “There is no state. There is no one there to punish you if you overstep your authority.”
Dudley also cast doubt on the recent reports of ties to drug traffickers. A recent InSight Crime article said the accusation by Mexican authorities “could be a sign of criminal infiltration of the self-defense groups, or just a smear from the threatened security forces.”