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On a Tuesday morning in March, with rifles slung over their shoulders, some 1,500 men filed into the Mexican town of Tierra Colorada, which sits on the highway from Mexico City down to the Pacific coast. They seized at gunpoint 12 police officers and a local security official, whom they believed responsible for the murder of their commander. They set up roadblocks, and when a car of Acapulco-bound beachgoers refused to stop, they opened fire and injured a passenger.
This was not the work of a drug cartel. The men were members of a self-defense group, one of a growing number of vigilante organizations aiming to restore order to Mexican communities. “We have besieged the municipality,” said a spokesperson for the group, “because here criminals operate with impunity in broad daylight.”
Mexico has suffered staggering levels of violence and crime during the country’s seven-year-long war against the cartels. The fighting has killed 90,000 people so far, a death toll larger, as of this writing, than that of the civil war in Syria. Homicide rates have tripled since 2007. In an effort to stem the carnage, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced last December that the federal government, having struggled to defeat the cartels using corrupt local police and an inadequate military, would create an elite national police force of 10,000 officers by the end of this year.
Many Mexicans are unwilling to wait. In communities across the country, groups of men have donned masks, picked up rifles and machetes, and begun patrolling their neighborhoods and farmland. As in the Tierra Colorada incident, their behavior is not always pretty. Several months ago, another such group in the state of Guerrero detained 54 people for over six weeks, accusing them of crimes ranging from stealing cattle to murder. After a series of unofficial trials, they handed 20 of them over to local prosecutors and let the rest go free.
In other communities, detainees have been beaten, forced into labor, or even lynched. Members of these fuerzas autodefensas (self-defense forces) say that they have no choice but to take matters into their own hands: criminals and gangs have become more brazen and violent than ever, and the police and the government are either absent, corrupt, or themselves working with the criminals.
Extralegal local self-defense groups have long been common in rural Mexico, particularly in indigenous communities in the south. In recent months, however, such groups have emerged with alarming frequency across the country, suggesting that many Mexicans have lost faith in the government’s willingness or ability to protect them. They have formed in the Pacific states of Michoacán and Jalisco, in the northern border state of Chihuahua, in the eastern states of Veracruz and Tabasco, and on the outskirts of Mexico City. They now operate openly in 13 different states and at least 68 municipalities. According to the government, 14 new groups have formed since January; Mexican security analysts say the real number is likely much higher.
The motives of these self-defense groups vary from town to town, as do their relationships with local governments and the police. The majority of them seem to draw on local outrage against the rising crime and violence in their communities. For others, the impetus is less clear. Some may represent instances of political opportunism. One local self-defense force in a small town in Oaxaca dissolved after 48 hours once the state government agreed to improve public services and oversight of the police. In other cases, the groups have taken advantage of political vacuums to advance illicit interests, even working as fronts for local gangs or trafficking networks. La Familia Michoacana, for example, originally claimed that its mission was to fight the Zetas and other drug cartels -- and then became a drug cartel itself. These groups often consist of well-intentioned citizens, unknowing pawns in a criminal network’s scheme to hobble a rival.
The lawlessness spawned by Mexico’s drug wars has contributed to the spread of self-defense groups, and the groups regularly blame the cartels and the government’s war on drugs for the lack of security. But they are not mainly concerned with stopping the drug trade. With a few exceptions, such as the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers) in Monterrey, their focus tends to be on local crimes, particularly robberies, rapes, and other violent attacks. Their actions have until now been limited to seizing alleged delinquents and criminals and either punishing them publicly or handing them over to the police. As one group leader in Tierra Colorada explained, “Narcotraffickers as a rule usually keep things under control in their territories, but lately they’ve been getting involved in extortion and murders, and that’s not right. The drug problem is for the state to resolve, but kidnapping and robbery touches us.”
The rapid proliferation of these groups poses a challenge to the Peña Nieto government just as it is trying to reform Mexico’s security policies. In a basic way, armed extralegal groups undermine the formal rule of law, and left unchecked, they could morph into criminal organizations themselves. But they have long played a role Mexico and in many regions enjoy a degree of public legitimacy that the police lack. Rather than try to dissolve these forces, Mexican officials must discern between those acting legitimately with local public support and those with ulterior motives and seek ways in which the former can contribute to public security -- at least until the government gets its act together.
Around the world, community-based crime-fighting groups have sprung up in places where formal security forces are absent or inadequate, often with the approval and support of governments. Despite their sometimes noble intentions, these organizations can pose a challenge to the authority and legitimacy of the state. In some cases when they have operated without oversight, they have killed wantonly, displaced thousands from their lands, or themselves taken up crime. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, for example, came into existence purportedly to protect rural communities from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but transformed over time into a paramilitary network that committed massacres, trafficked drugs, and engaged in corruption at the highest levels. Self-defense groups have often proved vulnerable to co-optation by criminal and insurgent groups.
Policymakers and academics alike tend to disdain less-than-official security arrangements, associating them with lawlessness and the decay of a state’s monopoly on coercive power. They often conflate grass-roots policing with rogue, power-hungry militias or paramilitary forces. Indeed, the line between the two can often be a fine one. Groups that set out to protect their communities may simultaneously infringe on the well-being of neighboring populations.
Yet it would be wrong to dismiss the utility of these types of groups altogether, particularly in an age rife with civil conflict. A growing body of research suggests that when states are unable or unwilling to provide security, local self-defense groups may be an imperfect but effective alternative. These forces are much cheaper and faster to assemble than formal police and army units, and they can quickly muster large numbers of men to secure isolated communities. Whereas outside forces need years to get to know the geography and residents of an area, local self-defense groups start with a leg up. Moreover, since these groups are motivated to protect their families and communities, they tend to be less predatory and to have higher morale than state security forces. In places as diverse as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, such groups are often held in check by community leaders and remain in large part dependent on their neighbors for information and material support. Finally, when the state cooperates with self-defense groups, it can use those ties to reach out to isolated communities and provide them with public services.
As cases from around the world show, these groups can be useful especially when governments incorporate them into a broader and well-formulated security strategy. In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Indian state of Punjab was rocked by a Sikh insurgency, the police were able to quell the unrest by coordinating with a large, well-organized, and well-supported volunteer force. At its peak, the Village Defense Scheme included nearly 1,100 village committees and 40,000 men. This force was completely integrated into the Punjab police’s overall counterinsurgency strategy. The police trained the volunteer units, assigned small detachments to support them, and worked with them to draw up village defense plans. Unlike those in Mexico, this self-defense force was organized by the government, but its success nonetheless demonstrates that states can make good use of informal security organizations.
Around the same time, when Peru faced a brutal Maoist guerilla movement known as the Shining Path, the country’s local self-defense and development committees played a major role in protecting the population in the rural highlands and enabling aid to flow there. Once they had served their purpose, the groups were able to integrate into Peruvian society. Several peasant commanders demobilized and transformed their units into political organizations that continue to work on behalf of the indigenous population. Other groups remain active and still useful: the current government in Lima has recently pledged to work with them on stopping drug trafficking and crime.
The rise of self-defense groups has provoked a fierce debate in Mexico. Many Mexicans fear that if the groups are allowed to operate, they could exacerbate the violence, undermine the rule of law, violate citizens’ rights, and spread crime. In February, the governor of the state of Sinaloa said that the legalization of these groups would amount to an admission of state failure. That same month, Manuel Mondragón y Kalb, the director of the National Security Commission, echoed these concerns, arguing that organized crime and the drug cartels appear to be “the hand that rocks the cradle” of the self-defense forces. Others accept that they are necessary so long as Mexican communities remain unsafe. The governor of Michoacán, for example, has pledged to support self-defense groups in his state with formal police training and equipment.
The critics are right that the ultimate solution to Mexico’s struggle against organized crime lies in the modernization of its security sector. But in the near term, the Mexican government may not have the ability or the will to effect dramatic institutional changes, such as creating more effective police forces. Until it does, policymakers cannot overlook the immediate need to keep the country’s communities safe. When the time comes, demobilizing the community groups will prove tricky and time consuming. But it can be achieved through a variety of inducements, including paying the vigilantes, finding them jobs, and integrating the groups into regular security forces.
Meanwhile, the spread of these groups indicates that the idea of community defense may be gaining in popularity. Although the federal government officially refuses to recognize the groups, several state and local governments have. Some have negotiated agreements with the community forces, some have provided them with training and basic equipment, and others simply permit them to exist and operate, hoping undue trouble does not arise.
The Peña Nieto administration is rightly focused on creating a new national police force, professionalizing Mexico’s local police, and improving its judicial and penal systems. But these reforms will take years, if not decades. And for the moment, the government has few good options for stemming the proliferation of community self-defense groups. Mexico could dispatch its police and armed forces to break up the groups, but doing so would divert precious resources away from the fight against cartels and criminals. Such an approach could also stoke even more local outrage against the government and either radicalize these community groups or encourage them to seek accommodation with other shadowy organizations that promise to provide security.
A better approach would be to reach out to the community self-defense forces and create positive relationships between them and the local or federal police. In fact, these kinds of arrangements are not uncommon. Since 1995, more than 80 villages in Guerrero have administered their own police and justice systems, following traditional indigenous practices, within the state-sponsored Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities program. This program has created units that are composed of armed villagers who perform routine patrols and turn suspects over to town assemblies. The state government gives them a small amount of training, simple T-shirt uniforms, and the authority to solve certain types of disputes.
Mexico must study the successful models from around the world to understand how coordination between formal and informal security forces can keep communities safe while still allowing for justice, accountability, and the rule of law. In the best cases, such cooperation has involved direct oversight of self-defense forces by a competent formal security force, a simultaneous focus on local economic development so that community defense does not evolve into mercenary activity, and efforts to restrict the armaments and geographic range of the voluntary forces to ensure that they operate only in a defensive capacity. As Mexico continues to reform and professionalize its law enforcement institutions -- a project that is still years from bearing fruit -- a flexible and pragmatic approach to self-defense groups will best serve the country.