Frontier Justice

How to Manage Mexico's Self-Defense Forces

Vigilantes in Michoacan, Mexico, January 10, 2014. Alan Ortega / Courtesy Reuters

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

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