Mexican vigilantes: Part of the problem or part of the solution

As clashes between vigilante groups and a drugs cartel continues the Mexican government has announced that federal troops will take over security in Michoacan.


1. In the past few days we have seen some reports about Mexican vigilantes fighting drug cartels. Does this phenomenon have any positive aspect or it only basically contributes on even bigger “mess” and violence?

2. How should the state approach those vigilante group in your opinion?


Sylvia LongmireAuthor of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, Drug War Expert

1. I feel like the vigilante issue in Michoacán – and elsewhere in Mexico; it’s not limited to that state, just most prominent – is mildly reminiscent of the autodefensas in Colombia in the 1990s. There are many differences of course, but here you have a group engaging in violence against another group that the government is also trying to get rid of. In Colombia, the autodefensas were engaged in drug trafficking and kidnapping/uprooting innocent people, but they were also hell-bent on eliminating the FARC and ELN. In Mexico, the vigilantes are generally (as far as I know) non-criminal citizens who are trying to get rid of violent criminals in their towns, but resorting to extralegal measures. In that regard, the positive aspect is that the Mexican people are standing up for themselves against the cartels and are willing to risk their lives to return their communities to some sense of normalcy. The negative aspect, of course, is that they’re contributing to the violence and helping to deteriorate the already delicate rule of law. We all know the Mexican justice system is extremely flawed, and in all reality, most of the members of the Knights Templar in Michoacán engaging in violence would probably never see the inside of a courtroom, but that doesn’t make the vigilante “justice” morally right off the bat. At least in the short-term, I do believe that the involvement of these groups in the cartel conflict makes the overall situation an even bigger mess.

2. If the State wants to maintain any credibility in the eyes of the United States, which is making sacrifices to help reform Mexico’s justice system, and the international community, it needs to be vocal about its opposition to these groups. It might run into trouble if authorities actually try to arrest any members of these autodefensas. However, it can’t appear to side with groups that are blatantly flaunting the law and announcing they are doing the job the government can’t or won’t do. That being said, I believe many in the Mexican government secretly support the vigilantes because they both have the same goal. From a selfish perspective, by the vigilantes going out there to fight, those are fewer soldiers and non-corrupt police who have to put themselves in harm’s way.

Miguel LevarioAssistant Professor, Department of History, Texas Tech University

1. The vigilante phenomenon has been happening since the outbreak of the violence in 2006-2007. For the most part the actions by some of these vigilantes has brought forward a complex situation that is difficult to assess. First, the actions by some of these civilians demonstrates the failure of law and order and the authority institutions in the various locales and the country. Also, many of these vigilantes are citizens who are fed up with the lack of resources and attention from the international community. However, as you indicated vigilante justice can bring on a slew of problems and exasperate the problem. Historically, this isn’t a new phenomenon in Mexico; however, this so-called drug war is highly complex and many citizens have taken the law into their own hands as a result of an absent or corrupt law enforcement infrastructure not necessarily because it is a culturally accepted practice.

2. The state needs to establish law and order in these areas by establishing an effective and less corrupt force in these areas. As I stated before many of these vigilante responses are due to a lack of effective or present law enforcement. People in many cases are simply filling the gap left by the state. The state needs to approach this at a macro-level and not simply just address the individual acts of vigilantism.

Nathan Jones, Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy, Baker Institute, Rice University

1. The emergence of vigilantes or self defense forces in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero has both positive and negative implications. First and foremost we have to decide if we think these groups are genuine in their desire to protect the population or have some other motives. In truth there are many groups and all possible motivations could be true. I have seen reports suggesting they are backed by rival cartels, that they are local caciques or strongmen trying to extract mining royalties. But most reports and experts on this issue generally find them to be genuine self defense forces that are trying to protect the population from organized crime extortion and abuse. I would put myself in this camp. It appears the Mexican military does as well because the groups claim to have cooperation from SEDENA (the army). The major arrests of vigilante leaders appear to be linked to leaders that got too close to leftist insurgent groups.

The emergence of these groups over the last year to year and a half could be a positive sign in that the Mexican government is very weak in this region and could work with paramilitaries against the cartels. The fear is that the paramilitaries will morph into organized crime style groups themselves.

2. I think the government should have a clear vetting process for the groups to decide which are genuine self defense forces and which are backed by rival cartels or are local caciques trying to enrich themselves (The government claims it is vetting the groups). If intelligence determines the groups to be genuine the government should work with them in a carefully regulated fashion to deny territory to organized crime groups such as the Caballeros Templarios, the remnants of La Familia Michoacana and Los Zetas (the most violent and extortionist groups). Careful consideration should be given to human rights abuses by the self defense groups. If there are too many abuses the cure could become worse than the disease. The fear is that these groups will morph into the paramilitaries we saw in Colombia.

The Mexican government should consider formalizing these groups into a program more like Soldados de mi Pueblo in Colombia. That program took locals and trained them into a “National guard unit” under the command of a military officer to patrol their home towns. This denied space to criminal insurgents (the FARC) because the boys mothers would call in intelligence to the commander so their sons would not have to fight. The Commander would radio in special forces in helicopters to deny the FARC large swaths of territory without fighting.

The trick will be taking these self defense groups and disarming them when hostilities have ceased or finding a clever way of making them part of the state apparatus. If this can be done in a way that respects human rights it could be a win-win for the Mexican government. As always the Mexican government must work diligently to reform and strengthen institutions such as the judiciary and the police at the federal, state and local levels.

Vanda Felbab-BrownSenior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution

1. The Mexican government and public are themselves ambivalent in deciding whether there is any positive aspect to the vigilante groups. They can perfectly reasonably point to the failure of the Mexican government for years and years to provide security in the Tierra Caliente part of Michoacan, and frankly in other parts of the country as well. Nor are such militias a new phenomenon restricted to Michoacan – we have been seeing their emergence since 2009 even in the north in the context of criminal violence and prior to that going back decades and decades. And of course, many a Mexican politician often treated municipal police forces as his personal militias. The autodefense groups also often point to a constitutional right for indigenous policing. All that said, I think it’s an extremely unhealthy development for Mexico. It further delegitimizes the state and legitimizes violence by nonstate actors.

2. It’s critical that the Mexican government negotiates disarmament of these self-defense groups – particularly those less likely to be fronts for other organized crime groups, but does so on the heels of start to deliver serious security in the area they operate. Unfortunately, the recent history is one of the police or military, the Mexican state, persuading some of the self-defense groups to disarm, and then failing to protect them from violent retaliation and assassination by the Templarios. And although the Templarios are the principal target and enemy, very quickly a lot of personal vendettas and personal conflict and self-interest gets wrapped up in the fight. So that makes state intervention more difficult. Sadly, I believe that the capacities of the Mexican state to effectively adopt the twin approach – disarm the groups but deliver much more robust and adequate security – are highly limit. Still, closing one’s eyes on the phenomenon and avoiding dealing with it is extremely unhealthy for Mexico and will only intensify a myriad of problems.

John HartProfessor of History,University of Houston

1. The conflicts you describe usually arise as a result of local conditions and events.  Sometimes, barrios (neighborhoods) within larger communities, but self governing decide to produce poppies and/ or marijuana in order to survive economically.  Other barrios may decide otherwise.  If outside cartel members enter the dissenting area they encounter resistance.  There is a complicating factor in that it is against the law for civilians to have firearms in Mexico, resulting from rural political resistance to the national and state regimes (Zapatistas and Villistas) that should remind you of the Hungarian revolution described by Leo Katz many years ago.  So, I believe it is positive because local citizens have been disempowered by the government and the cartels.

2.  The government should regulate the distribution of firearms carefully to prevent them from reaching criminals and help the rural populace deal with the drug problem.  They should also legalize marijuana so that petty “crimes” are taken out of the picture.

John BaileyProfessor, Department of Government and School of Foreign Service, Director – Mexico Project,  Georgetown University

1. My view is that vigilantes make a bigger mess, reflecting the weakness of the Mexican state (which taxes its citizens very lightly–on the order of Guatemala). Once arms & organizational skills spread into civil society the potential for higher levels of violence, extortion, & criminality increases. The vigilantes can become the armed wing of political interests. We can’t determine very clearly who the groups are & who they serve. The auto-defensas in Colombia began as an anti-kidnapping force & then became a major problem for the state.

2. No deals or alliances. that’s a very slippery slope. The state should have a basic strategy in mind. It could be a variation on take, hold, develop; or some notion of restoring order, followed by efforts to improve levels of justice & welfare.

George GraysonProfessor, Department of Government, College of William & Mary Williamsburg, Author of the book Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State?

Civil war and anarchy are wracking Michoacan, especially the Tierra Caliente region—with Apatzingan (bastion of the Knights Templars cartel) as the focus of conflict.

The Mexican government appears to be siding with the auto-defense groups, which claim to be battling the Knights Templars.

A concern is that the another cartel—the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), enemy of the Knights Templars, may be backing some auto-defense groups.


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