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.

Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.