Does Mexico’s “3×1 Program for Migrants” Encourage Autodefensas?

By Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz and Lauren Duquette-Rury*


Autodefensa in Michoacan / Esther Vargas / Creative Commons

Mexico’s armed vigilante groups, or autodefensas, are more likely to exist in those municipalities where migrant organizations – called hometown associations (HTAs) – help fund projects back home in collaboration with local authorities. HTAs are voluntary civic associations or clubs located in migrants’ destination countries – the United States for Mexicans – comprised of individuals with a shared attachment to a common place of origin. HTAs raise funds that they send home to fund public goods such as roads, health clinics, potable water, electricity, drainage and sanitation, and schools, often in partnership with government authorities. Since 2002, the Mexican government has run a “3×1 Program for Migrants” that matches the remittances that HTAs send back to their origin community at the local, state, and federal levels of government

  • In a recent article, we analyze data from 2,352 Mexican municipalities in 2002-13 that show that vigilante groups were more likely to emerge in 2013 in municipalities where HTAs participated frequently (six or more times during a 10-year period). The vigilante groups are parochial organizations comprised of private citizens who, acting outside of the formal mechanisms or institutions sanctioned by the state, take up arms to provide security for their communities.

The repeated cooperation between migrants and state and local actors appears to enable community members to act collectively in security and justice matters as well as public good projects. Notably, the depth and frequency of contact are more important factors than the amount of investment and the presence of drug-related violence or activities. Mexico’s vigilante groups apparently are not merely a response to contemporary security crisis, state incapacity, or unequal access to security. Rather, they are a function of citizen capacity enhanced by transnational linkages, strengthened by 3×1, to mobilize collectively to provide security for their communities.

  • In contrast to research indicating that migrant-state transnational co-production partnerships contribute to strengthening democracy by enhancing collective organizational capacity through preexisting levels of social capital, resources, and knowledge, we find that HTAs and their communities can marshal their new capacity to form organizations that carry out informal, non-state, extra-legal armed actions. Autodefensas can threaten state capacity and the rule of law. While they tend to be community-based organizations and have contributed to reducing violent crime, the mechanisms for citizens to hold these groups accountable are limited and human rights violations and extrajudicial killings are common.

The 3×1 Program rules prohibit the funding of private security in municipalities. Program funds could conceivably be misallocated strategically, but doing so to fund nonstate armed groups would entail significant risks and costs. It would be easier for HTAs to simply reallocate their collective remittances toward projects – including public security –  outside of the 3×1 program.

  • The HTA’s motives merit further inquiry. While evidence is lacking to demonstrate that HTAs’ desire to protect their investments is a key factor in encouraging vigilante group formation, they and their local co-sponsors are indeed targets of extortion by criminal gangs. They may be seeking to protect their current and future public goods investments by adapting the successful transnational coproduction model for public good provision to specifically enable vigilante group formation in Mexico. The emergence of return migrants from the United States as key leaders of vigilante groups in 2013 –  including José Manuel Mireles and Luis Antonio Torres (“El Americano”) – makes the question of social and political remittances all the more compelling.

July 23, 2019

* Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz  teaches Politics and Latin American Studies at Bates College and is guest editor with Ana Isabel López García (GIGA-Hamburg) of a Special Issue in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on how Mexican emigrants respond to and influence political violence in Mexico.  Lauren Duquette-Rury teaches sociology at Wayne State University and is the author of Exit and Voice: The Paradox of Cross-Border Politics in Mexico (University of California Press, 2019).

Mexico: Policy on “Auto-defensas” Makes Things Worse

By Steven Dudley*

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

Photo credit: Pedro Fanega / Flickr / CC BY

In a few short months, Michoacán’s “self-defense” groups have gone from being the Mexican government’s drunk uncle to being its strategic partner – underscoring what is wrong with the current government’s counterdrug strategy.  The vigilante groups are a multi-headed beast, born from sentiments that range from despair and frustration to opportunity.  Desperate small farmers and shopkeepers created some of the units because they’d been victimized by the “Knights Templar,” a splinter group with deep roots in the drug trade that has literally raped and pillaged their villages.  Frustrated agricultural and mining interests have funded their own “self-defense” groups.  And opportunistic rival criminal groups also seek to kill the Knights to take new, or reclaim old, territory.   Mexico’s federal and local governments are to blame for this chaos.  Drug-fueled corruption, ineptitude and lack of political will on the federal level have left the locals to fend for themselves, often leaving local politicians and security forces to align with the criminal interests, including the Knights Templar.

The federal government’s feeble and disjointed attempt to address the vigilantism is leading only to more confusion, chaos and most likely bloodshed.  In late January, it created a framework that legalized the organizations, placed then under one moniker – Rural Defense Units – and asked members to register themselves and their weapons.  But the framework makes no mention of their purview, jurisdiction, proposed length of service, nor does it clarify controls on their automatic and other sophisticated weaponry, which, under current Mexican law, requires military authorization.  Some of the groups accepted the government offer, including those that rode into the Michoacán city of Apatzingán last weekend to “take back” the city from the Knights.  More importantly, other vigilante groups have flat out refused the government.  Further fueling chaos, the federal government is applying a far harsher, more statist approach in the neighboring state of Guerrero, dispatching troops to stop the spread of “self-defense” groups that may have a longer history and more justifiable constitutional mandate than those in Michoacán.

Vigilante violence will undoubtedly continue to grow, as it becomes clearer that the federal government has no idea how to deal with it.  It is failing to address one of the root causes of the problem: illegal drugs have led to spectacular earnings that have made corrupting local and national officials easier; given criminal groups access to better training and weaponry to challenge the state and rivals; and created local, powerful criminal economies where perhaps they did not exist in the past.  In fact, no government official, vigilante group or other party in this conflict has even mentioned illegal drugs.  One vigilante told InSight Crime’s Mexico correspondent flat out: “We’re not against drug trafficking; we’re against organized crime.”  The causes of the violence are complex, but one cannot be addressed without addressing the others, and the Mexican government’s disjointed response is not pushing the country any closer to a solution.

* Steven Dudley directs InSight Crime and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.