In mid-February, in the rugged, sweltering part of the western Mexican state of Michoacán known as Tierra Caliente, or the Hot Land, groups of armed vigilantes advanced town by town, valley by valley, against a vicious drug trafficking cartel, the Knights Templar. Neither Mexican authorities nor outside observers knew where the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 members of these fuerzas autodefensas (self-defense forces) came from, who was leading them, or how they got their weapons. But these groups were succeeding where state and federal police and Mexico’s military had failed: they were driving the Knights Templar from their communities.

A month earlier, on January 15, the Mexican government had abandoned its efforts to disband and disarm what it called illegal vigilantes and instead reached an agreement with the militias in Michoacán to incorporate them into the official security forces as units of the government’s Rural Defense Corps. Before the agreement, President Enrique Peña Nieto sent federal forces into Michoacán to fight the drug cartels, which put the military and the local militias at a standoff, operating awkwardly around one another. The local defense forces, which formed out of anger and frustration about the violence wrought by drug cartels and the corrupt police’s inability to contain them, have long refused to lay down their arms.

Supporting community self-defense groups and partnering them with Mexican police and security forces are risky propositions. Community self-defense forces can be difficult to control and, if effective, can grow to challenge the central state’s authority. Although protective of their own communities, they may also threaten neighboring populations. On a tactical level, local militias in Mexico and elsewhere are vulnerable to defeat, defections, and infiltration by bad actors. Moreover, their intentions are often uncertain. After all, the Knights Templar cartel originated in 2011 as a local self-defense force that fought the brutal Familia Michoacana cartel. So it’s not surprising that many Mexicans view the new vigilantes in Michoacán with suspicion.

What Mexico’s new relationship with these self-defense groups means in legal or practical terms remains to be seen. There is no clear standard legal framework for these arrangements; the government says it has none, since the measures are meant to be temporary. According to reports about the Michoacán agreement, the the militias of the Rural Defense Corps are supposed to register all their personnel and weapons with Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat, known as SEDENA, and coordinate their actions with the Michoacán police and the federal security forces. Only Mexican-born locals with clean legal records can join the units, and recruits can later integrate into the municipal police.

Despite Mexico’s poor public security record in Michoacán and the fact that controlling these self-defense forces will be a challenge, bringing the vigilantes into the fold was probably Peña Nieto’s least bad option. The experiences of other countries, particularly Peru, where for over 20 years community self-defense forces played a significant and controversial role in the rural war against Maoist Shining Path insurgents, show that the co-optation of local militias can, indeed, over the long term improve security and prevent the entrenchment of violent, armed criminal groups. But cases in other countries also point to another problem: how to disband, formalize, and otherwise manage such groups once the government is done with them. In order to maximize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls associated with raising and employing vigilantes, the Mexican government should consider a few lessons from around the world.


Critics of state co-optation of local self-defense groups insist that the strategy fuels cycles of violence by compromising the rule of law and increasing the likelihood that group members will resort to criminal activities, including extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. As evidence, they cite Colombia, where the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which the government formed in 1996 to protect citizens from guerrilla attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, evolved into a criminal organization that is still at war with the government.

Informal militias can also be unreliable, difficult to control, and capable of undermining the central authority that employs them. In many cases, local defense forces remain loyal to local leaders who tend to follow parochial interests, sometimes at the expense of the state. In Thailand, for example, the government deployed a civil defense force known as Or Sor, or the Volunteer Defense Corps, to guard roads and protect residents from Muslim separatists. But Or Sor was founded by some of Thailand’s most corrupt politicians, many of them engaged in criminal activities; the group’s rise only increased their authority.

Small, poorly trained, and ill-equipped self-defense groups are also vulnerable to defections, intimidation, and defeat, particularly when they are not properly integrated with or supported by regular state security forces, or when they are employed in conventional military roles. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military trained local militias known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group to protect villages from Vietcong infiltration in the Central Highlands along the Cambodian border. But the units, deployed as conventional troops far away from their home areas, were ineffective against the larger and better-armed Vietcong. Desertion rates spiked as local leaders chafed at serving so far from their villages.

Finally, the formal end of a conflict hardly means that local paramilitary groups will disband. In 2008, the Iraqi government failed to transition the 100,000-strong militias known as the Sons of Iraq into permanent positions in the military, police, and other state security services. Disillusioned militia members clashed with state forces; some even rejoined the insurgency. Today, although some militia members continue to work with the government, most have scattered and ended their cooperation with Baghdad.

For Mexico, then, the lessons are straightforward: provide sufficient support to the local defense program; ensure that participants are locals with community support and connections; assert operational control over the groups; and set the conditions for their eventual demobilization. But that is easier said than done, something that the case of Peru makes very clear.


Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Peru’s military learned hard lessons about mobilizing community self-defense forces against the Shining Path Maoist insurgent group, which began fighting the government in 1980. Peasant volunteers initially lacked weapons and were wary of cooperating with the military for fear of retaliation by Maoists; many early volunteers were killed and injured, and some even committed atrocities that rivaled those of the insurgents. The Peruvian government responded to this shoddy record by training the militias, giving them equipment, and eventually turning them into official state auxiliaries.

Most of the militias that were integrated into Peru’s military hailed from the contested Apurimac Valley in southern Peru, where fighting against the Maoists was fiercest. The grassroots militias that cooperated with the military were given the title of Civil Defense Committees. At first, the military didn’t try to control the CDCs, since many military officers were opposed to working with armed peasants. But Shining Path guerillas were able to capitalize on the CDCs’ weakness, systematically targeting village defenders and hunting down and torturing commanders and their families. The attacks discouraged volunteers. Many CDC units refused to patrol areas and, in some instances, allowed Maoist guerillas to pass through their territory to avoid being attacked.

In response, in 1989, the Peruvian government organized the CDCs into a cohesive, regionally focused force. With the help of the Peruvian marines, the government incorporated disparate CDCs into the Counter-Subversion Civil Defense Forces, or DECAS in Spanish, a hierarchical network of regional, district, and village self-defense committees. It divided the Apurimac Valley into administrative zones, each controlled by its own peasant commander. To professionalize the fighting forces, each administrative zone formed an elite commando unit composed of the best of the DECAS volunteers, who were well-trained, well-armed, and received monthly stipends. Whereas the CDCs were primarily a defensive force in villages, the DECAS went on the offensive throughout the valley. Volunteers mainly provided reconnaissance for the marines, who, armed with overwhelming firepower, decimated Shining Path strongholds and pacified the entire Apurimac Valley in a few months.

But the very source of the DECAS’ effectiveness -- their relative autonomy and strong village leadership -- contributed to the rise of local warlords who could employ the DECAS as their own private militias, sometimes in support of lucrative drug-smuggling operations. To protect their hard-fought autonomy and drug profits, DECAS groups occasionally clashed with the army, the police, and even U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

In the early 1990s, newly elected Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori reined in the DECAS. Renamed the Comités de Autodefensa y Desarrollo, or Self-Defense and Development Committees (CAD), the units were placed under direct military control. To discourage abusive or predatory behavior and limit the autonomy of peasant commanders, the Peruvian military adopted new reporting requirements: CAD commanders had to submit weekly reports on their activities, and patrol leaders had to obtain declarations from the communities that they visited stating that the patrols had not committed any abuses or crimes. If they had, they were subject to arrest and prosecution by the Peruvian government. The Peruvian military also conducted random inspections of CAD units and issued identification cards to prevent infiltration.

In order to stem inter-village violence and prevent future threats to the government, the military limited the numbers and types of weapons that self-defense groups could own by only selling them certain armaments and keeping detailed registers of the firearms and ammunition in each group’s possession. Although CAD units desperately wanted new high-tech long-range weapons, the government only distributed shotguns and obsolete, bolt-action Mauser 1909 rifles to them. Because Mauser ammunition was difficult to get, villagers were almost completely reliant on the military for supplies. 


Today, most Peruvians recognize the role that the 120,000 volunteers of village defense groups played in beating back the Maoist insurgents. What’s more, membership in a defense group became a claim to citizenship among much of Peru’s indigenous population, whose members had long considered themselves outsiders. Many volunteers joined the police; some CAD leaders even entered politics and the civil service. Several peasant commanders have successfully demobilized their groups and transformed them into civil society organizations and political parties that promote the rights of indigenous groups. Others have continued to work alongside the government, which recently pledged to strengthen the remaining groups to help quell drug trafficking and crime.

To successfully follow Peru’s example, Mexico’s federal and state governments will have to invest as much, if not more, in oversight and control over the Rural Defense Corps in Michoacán. On February 4, the Peña Nieto government indicated its seriousness by pledging to spend $3.4 billion on state development and security programs in the state. Mexican authorities must also be patient. Whatever success the militias achieve, it could take years -- not months -- of collaboration with police, military, and other security forces for the gains to last. And when the government does restore security to those corners of the country devastated by the drug cartels, it cannot rest. It will have to invest even more time and resources into the effective and peaceful demobilization of civil defense groups. Mexico may well have a new set of allies in the fight against the cartels, but that does not make the battle any less demanding.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PATRICIO ASFURA-HEIM is an irregular warfare specialist at the CNA Corporation. He served as a governance and rule of law adviser for the U.S. Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. RALPH H. ESPACH is Director of the Latin American Affairs Program at the CNA Corporation. He is a co-author, with Joseph Tulchin, of Latin America in the New International System.
  • More By Patricio Asfura-Heim
  • More By Ralph H. Espach