Rise of Self-Defense Groups Highlights Mexico's State-Level Security Challenges
Although La Familia later splintered, its main offshoot, the Knights Templar, has continued to use Michoacan state’s strategic location to move drugs north and terrorize local communities through extortion and kidnapping. Last May, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration announced that the federal government would intervene in Michoacan once again, only to institute a specialized commission in charge of the state’s security a little over a week ago.
Notwithstanding these parallels, a new variable came into play in early 2013: the rise of “self-defense groups,” which have added a new layer of complexity to the security situation of both Michoacan and Mexico as a whole. These groups have waged small but consistent efforts to drive the Knights Templar from villages throughout the past year. On New Year’s Eve 2013 these efforts seemed to have gained critical momentum as caravans of pickup trucks stormed and took control of many of the Knights Templar’s major strongholds.
Perhaps even more surprising, during the first two weeks of January, federal policemen and the army limited their role to that of bystanders as members of the self-defense groups disarmed municipal policemen, whom they accused of colluding with the Knights Templar. The government has now adopted a tougher stance toward the self-defense groups and has urged them to join local police forces. In response, some of the groups’ leaders have indicated that they will disarm only when the heads of organized crime in the region are arrested and the rule of law is re-established. Nonetheless the ambiguity of the government’s stance was further exposed when the government undertook a large-scale operation to protect one of the self-defense groups’ most visible leaders, Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, after he suffered a near-fatal plane crash.
It remains unclear who exactly coordinates these groups and how they are financing the acquisition of weapons that increasingly resemble those used by their rivals. The leader of the Knights Templar, Servando Gomez, has repeatedly attempted to discredit the self-defense groups as the armed enforcers of a rival cartel, while Mexico’s commissioner for national security, Manuel Mondragon, recently declared that the self-defense groups’ membership is heterogeneous. It should also be noted that the Mexican newspaper Excelsior recently reported that Vireles was incarcerated for drug trafficking in the late 1980s.
What is clearer, however, is that the emergence of vigilante groups in Mexico should not be judged as a completely unpredictable turn of events. Paramilitary groups in Colombia and the “Black Shadow” death squads in El Salvador are not only a bleak precedent, but a reminder that in the face of institutional weakness, different power groups will eventually emerge to fill the vacuum.
What does this all mean for Pena Nieto and his government? Ongoing challenges in Michoacan shed light once again on the lack of government control in parts of Mexican territory. Tellingly, Mexico's government only collected 10 percent of gross domestic product in taxes in 2012, excluding oil revenue—one of the lowest rates in the world, below poorer countries such as El Salvador and Thailand. Mexico is a federation, where states have overall responsibility over law enforcement, which makes the federal government’s task all the more arduous. The state of Michoacan in particular has a long history of extreme corruption, incompetence and therefore massive public debt. Exacerbating matters, its current governor, Fausto Vallejo, took a 180-day leave of absence last year due to a serious health condition and did not hand over power, despite a widespread security crisis.
These sorts of structural and institutional weaknesses are at the heart of governmental difficulties in responding to the challenges posed by organized crime in Mexico. In 2011, out of 2,439 municipalities in Mexico, 2,022 had a police force, including roughly 1,000 with more than 20 policemen. Added to 32 state police forces, the federal police forces and the army, this shows the level of complexity the current government is up against in any effort to rationalize the deployment of security forces. Any reform is therefore likely to require much patience. For instance, the creation of a gendarmerie—one of the key security reforms of the current administration—is already 10 months behind schedule, and the force has been downsized from a planned 40,000 cadets to 10,000.
Despite these structural challenges, the mission at hand is not impossible, as decreased levels of violence and successful police reforms in other Mexican states demonstrate. Moreover, there is momentum for change across the Americas, where a consensus has emerged that the so-called war on drugs has been a failure. Many heads of state also agree that there should be a shift toward harm-reduction strategies aimed at mitigating the negative effects caused by drug trafficking, organized crime and previous policies to combat them, and treating current security issues primarily as health and socioeconomic challenges.
The new commission for Michoacan has been praised for moving in this direction, as it has emphasized the need to engage with local communities so as to “rebuild the social fabric” and focus on crime prevention. Two years ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs—a crucial milestone that Mexico pushed for with Colombia and Guatemala—neighboring countries will certainly pay close attention to Mexico’s response to the rise of vigilantes in Michoacan, a worrying development Mexico’s neighbors are far from immune to.
Jerónimo Mohar is an analyst on foreign affairs. He is a former Mexican government official and previously worked at the Mexican think tank Grupo COPPAN. He holds a master’s degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics.
Benoît Gomis is an analyst on international security, drug policy and counterterrorism. He is currently writing a book on counterterrorism for CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) as a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS). He previously worked at Chatham House, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the French Ministry of Defense.