Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico
Mexico City/Bogotá/Brussels | 28 May 2013
The rise of civilian militias to combat lawlessness will make it harder than ever to defeat the cartels unless the government regulates the vigilantes.
Crisis Group’s latest briefing, Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico, examines the rapid expansion this year of civilian armed groups that claim to be fighting crime. Although many contain well-meaning citizens and have detained hundreds of suspected criminals, they challenge the government’s basic monopoly on the use of force to impart justice, and some have their own links to the cartels.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
- The epicentre of these groups is in Michoacán and a second Pacific state, Guerrero. Thousands of armed men are participating in a range of vigilante organisations. This has coincided with protests against government reforms, including road blockades and looting of food trucks, that are part of a broader challenge to state authority. Mexico’s recent law-enforcement offensive in Michoacán state demonstrates the limits of a militarisation of anti-drug cartel policies.
- The spread of these militias in the coming years could lead to parts of the country existing outside the control of official law enforcement. As the militias proliferate, there is also concern that some are being used by criminal groups to fight their rivals and control territory.
- The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto needs a coherent policy on vigilantism so it can work with authentic community policing projects, particularly in indigenous communities, while stopping the continued expansion of unregulated armed groups. This requires demonstrating that the state has sufficient capacity to restore law and order on its own.
- There are signs that the militias can be contained. Many community police units are keen not to be associated with the more violent groups and may be prepared to compromise over how they operate. Agreements between some vigilante leaders and governors show voluntary disarmament can be achieved. If the government formulates a coherent policy, vigilante militias need not become an integral feature of the national landscape.
“Community policing can make a good contribution to fighting insecurity, but only if it is legal and works with the government”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean Program Director. “Groups that take the law into their own hands only add to violence and can be used by criminal organisations for their own objectives”.
“The clamour for security is legitimate,” says Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President and Special Adviser on Latin America. “But justice is better served through effective law enforcement institutions than the barrels of private guns”.