Mexican Gov’t Fed Up With Vigilante Gunmen Attacking the Drug Cartels
Deadline looming for citizen squads to turn in heavy weapons
The Mexican government is in a dilemma. The cartels are still running amok throughout the country … and now armed citizens are taking the law into their own hands to stop them.
The rise of the vigilante squads in the state of Michoacan—now also spreading to other states—has been one of the enduring stories of the drug war. Armed citizens at risk of drug violence have picked up everything from axes to machine guns, shot it out with the cartels and even driven the gangsters out of their communities.
At least 200 people have died in clashes between the vigilantes and the Knights Templar, a cult-like cartel that models itself on medieval crusaders.
“The Knights often behead or mutilate their victims and leave their heads in discotheques or town squares,” writes Ioan Grillo—a veteran drug war reporter—in West Point’s counter-terror journal Sentinel.
But by May 11, the government wants the militias to hand in their heaviest weapons—machine guns and grenade launchers—and join the state-backed Rural Defense Corps. These forces, numbering a few thousand, have existed since the 19th century as a means to fight off rural bandits.
In exchange, the government says it “will provide uniforms, vehicles, weapons, training and salaries,” according to drug war news Website Borderland Beat.
Will it work? There’s good reason to be skeptical. A previous attempt to register and partially disarm the militias in January faltered with the vigilante leaders balked. The May deadline is an extension.
The vigilantes—or militias—have also existed in Michoacan for years, but escalated their activities as cartel violence ramped up. The vigilantes also promoted themselves using social media sites such as Facebook, which encouraged their spread into neighboring states.
But the government isn’t keen to the idea of non-state groups taking the law into their own hands. There are also worries some of the vigilantes may be working for organized crime groups, or could use their power to exploit people in the future.
Paramilitary groups in Colombia—first established to defeat criminal gangs—went on to establish themselves as the new gangs, and have been responsible for numerous massacres. Mexico doesn’t want to repeat that mistake.
At the same time, the Mexican government realizes it’s in a pickle—and the vigilantes are much more effective at fighting the cartels. Rather than try to fight both the cartels and the self-defense squads, the government would rather co-opt the latter. That’s also the conclusion of a new report in Sentinel.
“Mexico’s vigilante self-defense squads began as an authentic movement to fight cartels, copying and expanding on the tactics developed by indigenous community police,” Grillo writes. “The vigilantes clearly broke laws, but they claimed they were forced to take up arms because the government failed to defend them.”
But as Grillo points out, the vigilantes hardly have their hands clean. When they’ve captured cartel gunmen, they’ve taken the charitable step of pardoning lower-level members. But some of those members end up in vigilante ranks.
“They have been plagued by infighting among commanders and accusations of crimes in the territories they control,” Grillo writes.
No wonder the government wants to at least get a grip on them—without getting rid of them altogether.