Lock and Load – Mexican vigilantes are on the rise

Mexican Army soldiers during a cleaning at Michoacán in August 2007

Anyone with even a passing interest in Mexico will be aware of the serious violence that has been underway in various parts of the country since 2006, as powerful cartels battle each other over the spoils of lucrative drug trafficking routes into the United States. Faced with local police forces that simply cannot cope due to under resourcing, intimidation or corruption, the Mexican state has often dispatched its armed forces to such semi-war zones in an effort to hold the line and clean house. Caught in the crossfire are the civilian populations, and after almost a decade of kidnappings, mass killings and intimidation, many of the worst affected communities in Mexico have responded by forming their own self-defence units, known as fuerzas autodefensas, or what are effectively vigilantes.

In the town of Hidalgo, the Pedro Mendez Column conducts night patrols independent of any law enforcement support, chasing off criminals and cartel thugs. In March 2013, over 1,500 armed men marched into the town of Tierra Colorada, seized what they perceived to be the corrupt local police force, and fortified the town. Meanwhile, in early 2014, members of the Self-Defence Council of Michoacán battled with members of the Knights Templar drug cartel for control of the town of Nueva Italia. By late 2013, similar groups had 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.

While initially regarded with suspicion that they only helped perpetuate violence, in 2014 the Mexican government began swearing in members of such groups into an officially sanctioned State Rural Force, the reasoning being that if they were determined to fight the cartels, then they may as well do so under official control. In the western state of Michoacan, 3,000 members of a self-defence group who had been fighting the Knights Templar cartel signed up to join the Rural State Force, and were issued with registered firearms and military-style uniforms, with the intention that they support the federal and state authorities in law enforcement and counter-narcotics efforts. While only 3,300 out of an estimated 20,000 vigilantes in the region signed up, by pursuing such a policy Mexico has still, in effect, created a civilian militia with all the trappings of a military reserve force.

This may allow a veneer of official control, but it is just another symptom of the deeper issues that face Mexican civilian law enforcement in drug conflict zones. While they are being progressively reformed, trained and equipped with U.S. funding and support, Mexican police in certain areas are still not up to the task of providing basic security, necessitating the deployment of the military. This effectively helps militarise Mexico’s drug conflict, and enlisting armed civilians as a de facto state militia can only further accelerate this process.

Iwan Benneyworth