Mexico and the Autodefensas: A Deal with the Devil

Mexico’s plan to incorporate citizen self-defense forces known as “autodefensas” into its official security strategy in the state of Michoacán is going about as well as expected. While the militias had some success in rolling back the influence of the Knights Templar cartel in their state, their reputation has been marred by deadly infighting among various factions, accusations of extortion of local businesses and alleged ties to criminal groups.

Last month, the government reached a deal with the umbrella organization representing these groups that allows their members to join the so-called Rural Police (“policía estatal fuerza rural” in Spanish). The agreement requires the autodefensa members who do not choose to join the Rural Police to register their firearms and keep them in their homes. According to the Federal Security Commissioner for Michoacan, Alfredo Castillo, the government will not tolerate unregistered militias after a May 10th deadline.

However, some of the vigilantes are resisting. They fear the government is using the registration effort as a ploy to seize their weapons. So far, there are no indications that this is the case, but distrust of official security forces runs extremely deep in Mexico. One recent study found that 90% of Mexicans have little or no trust in municipal police. Just a few weeks ago, nearly 100 police officers in Michoacán were fired for failing confidence exams.

The state’s inability to provide adequate security was the original impetus for the formation of the autodefensas, but their very existence has created problems in and of itself. For one, there is strong evidence that elements of the autodefensas have joined up with criminals from the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) and the Knights Templar to form a new cartel known as La Tercera Hermandad (“The Third Brotherhood,” or H3).  Mexico’s police forces are notoriously corrupt, but since the former vigilantes will now be working alongside official police, opportunities for espionage and sabotage of anti-crime operations will likely become more abundant.

Another issue is the difficulty of distinguishing between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Undoubtedly, some of the vigilantes who are hesitant to join the Rural Police are well-intentioned enough. The deal between the autodefensas organization and the government was widely (and misleadingly) reported as a “disarming” of the groups. It would not be unreasonable to worry that the government might take their weapons and leave them unable to defend themselves against criminals or other vigilantes.

However, there are also others whose motives may be more nefarious. For example, just this weekend, a firefight broke out in Lázaro Cárdenas between federal forces working with the Rural Police and a group of gunmen posing as an autodefensa. 155 subjects were arrested. According to Alberto Gutiérrez, a spokesman for the council of autodefensas, these men were “collaborators” with the Knights Templar cartel.

Whether or not Gutiérrez’s accusations are true, government actions against those who refuse to register their weapons could create a violent backlash that would only make the situation worse. As a recent report from InSight Crime and the Wilson Center put it:

Michoacán has…devolved into a low intensity four-front battle: militias fighting militias; militias fighting DTOs [drug-trafficking organizations]; militias fighting the federal security forces; federal security forces versus DTOs. There are more potential fighting forces that have been neutralized, such as the local municipal police, which may also enter the fray. The resulting chaos has terrifying implications that the government, and the Mexican populace, are only now beginning to comprehend.

Essentially, the government has no good options. It can’t continue to tolerate (much less work alongside) unregulated vigilantes, but it also can’t ignore the fact that those same unregulated vigilantes have proven themselves to be a very effective anti-cartel force. Trying to forcibly disarm them would result in violent resistance, weakening both sides and making it much easier for criminal groups to sweep back into Michoacán relatively uncontested.

Still, the idea of creating a new police force out of unvetted, untrained ex-militia members seems suspect on its face. It is all but guaranteed that the new Rural Police will experience the same problems affecting Mexico’s law enforcement in general: corruption, infiltration by criminal elements, defections to organized crime, human rights violations.

The autodefensas were never a sustainable solution to the lack of rule of law in Michoacán and their codification as an official police force won’t change much. What the autodefensa movement proved is that significant advances against organized crime groups can be achieved with strong cooperation between communities and the government. At the same time, it illuminated the fact that, where rule of law and legitimate economic opportunities are lacking, crime can – and does – pay.

Mexico’s Drug War has already claimed an estimated 100,000 or more lives and by the end of current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term in office, it is expected to claim tens of thousands more. What Michoacán and Mexico need is not more security forces or funding, but a comprehensive and holistic approach to socio-economic issues like unemployment and poverty. Not an easy path by any means, but one that will be far more successful and far less gory than the current trajectory.

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