Mexico’s Plan to “Legalize” Vigilantes Is Dangerous and It Won’t Work

Last month, the Mexican government announced an initiative to “legalize” vigilante self-defense groups that have sprung up in response to drug-war related violence. The groups, known as “autodefensas” or “Rural Defense Units” have actually had some success in battling the cartels and the government has been moving from leniency to outright cooperation with them over the past few months. A few days ago, one such group took over the town of Apatzingan – which had previously been controlled by the Knights Templar cartel – with help from federal security forces.

Basically, Mexico’s judicial system and security forces are so corrupted and ineffective that citizens have taken matters into their own hands. The Knights Templar are estimated to have extracted millions in extortion “taxes” from pretty much everyone from cattle ranchers to avocado farmers. Those who can’t or won’t pay get kidnapped or killed. Fed up with the government’s failure to provide basic security, private citizens started forming illegal militias to fight back. And now the government wants to work with them.

This is a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, drug gangs are notorious for being able to bribe or intimidate just about anyone into cooperation (the “plata o plomo” dilemma). Some cartels have already accused the autodefensas of being in league with their criminal rivals. In an interview with Democracy Now!, journalist Anabel Hernández claimed that “in Mexico doesn’t exist really a war against the drug cartels. What exists in the government of Felipe Calderón was a war between the cartels, and the government took a side of that war, protecting to the Sinaloa Cartel.” (Interestingly, the Sinaloa cartel has allegedly offered its support to the anti-Knights Templar autodefensa.)

Even if the government has the purest of motives, there is a distinct possibility that the cartels will exploit this new policy to their advantage by using state-sanctioned groups as proxies in battles between themselves. Also, since the autodefensas will be working with police, opportunities for espionage and sabotage of state efforts against the criminals will likely become more abundant.

Secondly, this sort of idea has never worked in the past. Take a look at Peru, Guatemala and Colombia. Take a look at Iraq or Libya. Integrating militias with security forces is just a stupid idea on its face. It’s an admission that the government has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law – that they are losing the war. Who would join a police force or military that has basically admitted defeat? Who would trust a government relying on semi-official militias for security?

Tens of thousands have died over the past decade of horrific violence. US taxpayers give hundreds of millions of dollars every year to help Mexico fight the cartels, but as this NBC article points out:

Most of it [goes] to notoriously corrupt police forces and the same military whose soldiers have tortured, raped and killed innocent civilians while battling the cartels, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. President Felipe Calderon himself said more than half of state and local police can’t be trusted, and federal ranks are rife with corrupt officers.

Nearly everything about the “drug war” is pointless. Not only has it destroyed countless lives on both sides of the border, it’s even contributing to climate change. As I argued at length here, the only way to win the battle against the cartels is to legalize drugs and focus on cleaning up Mexico’s government and police forces so they can concentrate on the truly heinous crimes perpetrated by criminal organizations like sex trafficking and murder for hire.

But if history is any guide, this is not what will happen. We will continue spending billions on failed strategies while innocent people suffer and die. Drug gangs will continue to spread throughout Central America and into the US. Calls from regional leaders to find a better approach will continue to be ignored and dismissed.

This state of affairs brings to mind the old adage “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” Sadly, this insanity will probably continue for some time.

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