Mexico’s ‘vigilante monster’

The fundamental problem in Michoacan is the collusion between criminal gangs and the authorities.

Mexican federal forces have taken over police duties in the restive state of Michoacan [AFP]

Mexico’s army and federal police were recently deployed to the Mexican state of Michoacan to deal with the ongoing battle between the Knights Templar drug cartel and vigilante groups known as “autodefensas”.

Formed in February 2013 as a response to the state’s unwillingness and inability to safeguard its people, these self-defense forces have succeeded in “liberating” a number of areas from cartel control, and have refused to comply with orders to disarm.

According to an AP report titled “Mexico Gov’t Faces Vigilante Monster It Created“, the US State Department “said that the warring between vigilantes and the cartel is ‘incredibly worrisome’ and [that it is] ‘unclear if any of those actors have the community’s best interests at heart'”.

This is a curious assessment coming from an entity that prefers to showcase its concern for Mexican community interests by destroying Mexico’s agriculture and industries via free trade schemes and by converting the country into a battlefield in the war on drugs.

Since drug war operations were outsourced to the Mexican administration in 2006, over 77,000 persons have reportedly been killed in related violence, while the US has exploited attendant opportunities for imperial meddling in Mexico’s national security and other arenas.

Incidentally, Michoacan is the very site of the launching of the 2006 edition of the drug war, which has been characterised by rampant corruption including high-level collaboration between cartels and members of the army, police force and political scene.

The reign of near-total impunity in Mexico means that state security forces are not held accountable for crimes committed in the name of the ostensible war on organised crime, such as torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

The reign of near-total impunity in Mexico means that state security forces are not held accountable for crimes committed in the name of the ostensible war on organised crime, such as torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Indeed, had the AP wanted to paint an unambiguous picture of just how the alleged “vigilante monster” was created, some reference might have been made to relevant monstrous behavior on the part of representatives of the state.

Instead, the article simply notes that the autodefensas have enjoyed “months of unofficial tolerance” and that they have been “more successful than the government” in combating the Knights Templar.

The recent confirmation of an alliance between the US government and Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa cartel meanwhile renders US offers of assistance in Michoacan even more tragically hilarious.

Monsters or heroes?

The Mexican vigilante phenomenon is neither new nor unique to the state of Michoacan. Numerous other self-defense and “community police” formations exist – some fight the cartels, some fight the exploitation of natural resources, some fight both.

The community police tradition has been especially pronounced among certain indigenous groups. Despite the professed concern in the US about possible vigilante ignorance of the community’s best interests in Michoacan, some sectors of said community would presumably beg to differ – such as the civilians that were fired upon by the Mexican army while protesting the attempted disarming of the autodefensas.

Given the obstacles to daily existence under the de facto rule of the Knights Templar, it’s not difficult to see why the vigilantes might enjoy a certain level of support. Obstacles have entailed killings, kidnappings, extortion, the rape of young girls[Es] by cartel members, land seizures, the imposition of narco-taxes on grapefruit, tortillas, and cows[Es], and the obstruction of harvests in order to raise prices.

On January 17, it was reported that the autodefensas had returned 654 acres of seized land to villagers.

According to doctor and vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles, the group’s accomplishments also include indefinitely terminating the regional operations of mining company Minera del Norte, said to be paying mind-boggling quantities of protection money to the Knights Templar.

Arturo Cano, a journalist with Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper, offers a quote from an ex-Knight-Templar-turned-vigilante who justifies his conversion on the grounds that the autodefensas do not constitute “a criminal group; on the contrary, they support and help the people that most need it”.

Such help could not, unfortunately, have been carried out without weaponry.

Colombia revisited?

Detractors of the vigilantes in Michoacan have variously accused the groups of being in the pay of a rival cartel, of aspiring to cartel-hood themselves, and of ushering in an era of Colombian-style paramilitarism.

While the first two accusations are obviously useful in detracting attention from state abuses and negligence, the third raises more interesting questions.

For example, since the function of Colombian paramilitaries has been to carry out atrocities on behalf of elite political interests, couldn’t the Mexican state qualify as its own paramilitary force?

Mexican military collusion with select drug traffickers suggests that there may be other valid contenders for paramilitary roles as well.

Prior to their false demobilisation in 2006, Colombian paramilitaries operated as a coalition called the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. The concept of “self” somehow managed to encompass exploitative corporations such as the US-based Chiquita Brands International, subsequently fined $25m in 2007 for payments to said paramilitary outfit. 

Seeing as the self-defence forces in Michoacan tend to focus a bit more on defending, you know, themselves and their communities, the attempted Colombian parallel seems even more out of place.

Other Colombian parallels are perhaps more valid given the neoliberal dedication of both the Colombian and Mexican regimes to quash popular solidarity and eliminate basic rights, to the great benefit of the imperial neighbor to the north.

As Guillermo Fabela Quinones has noted in an op-ed[Es] for the Mexican daily Por Esto!, the fundamental problem in Michoacan has to do with the collusion between criminal gangs and the authorities, “evidence not only of the great corruption that is intrinsic to neoliberalism but also of the lack of government interest in fulfilling basic responsibilities”, an arrangement that prioritises “personal interests over collective ones”.

What is required at the moment, in Fabela Quinones’ view, is a “new inclusive social pact” that addresses the causes of the “terrible decomposition of the social fabric”, ranging from the “scandalous corruption” among officials and the business sector to the dearth of employment opportunities for young people.

In the view of numerous other observers, politicians, and media outlets, the Mexican government’s most pressing assignment is to assert its control over the state of Michoacan.

The AP report on the “vigilante monster” warns that a “dangerous precedent” is being set thanks to “the tolerance of the armed citizen groups”.

To be sure, the autodefensas cannot be blindly idealised. But there’s nothing wrong with setting a precedent that further exposes the utterly dysfunctional nature of the state and promotes a total loss of credibility in state institutions.

Any potential contributions to the overhaul of a rotten system should be actively endorsed.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.