By Christiane Coste, human rights graduate student at Columbia University
Despite the big victory in Mexico’s fight against organized crime, the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, considered the world’s most wanted drug lord, Mexico continues to face many challenges. For one, it runs the risk of clouding pressing national security problems as a result of a triumphalist attitude on the part of the government and a media that is solely focused on the capture of this powerful kingpin. Therefore, this may be an opportune moment to look at some of the problems Mexico must still address as a result of the war against drugs, in particular, the emergence of vigilante groups in Michoacán and the potential human rights violations that can result from these armed groups.
As the state has proven incapable of guaranteeing citizens’ security, particularly in the Tierra Caliente region, vigilante units (self-defense groups as they call themselves) have emerged as a citizen-led effort to confront the particularly violent and vicious cartel of the Knights Templar. This cartel has engaged in systematic extortion and kidnappings at unprecedented levels, leading to a massive escalation of violence in the region. Anyone unwilling to abide by the cartel’s rules was targeted with violence and unimaginable levels of human rights violations. Fed-up with the violence, armed groups consisting of small ranchers, local business people, and returning migrants from the United States, began to appear during the first months of 2013. They began by taking over several communities in the region, and sending the message to both cartel members and the authorities to keep out. After almost one year of operations the self-defense groups are now armed with over 16,000 weapons, and have developed a rather sophisticated structure of command to keep the cartel and its violence out.
As argued by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Mexican government has adopted a “very unclear position” with regards to these armed groups. It first sent federal forces to regain control of the region and ordered the self-defense groups to lay down their weapons. However, shortly there after, it announced its official recognition of these groups and incorporated them into a “Rural Police Unit,” whose jurisdiction, roles, and limits are highly unclear. According to HRW, “it seems the government has been learning along the way, improvising the details of their approach against a very serious situation.”
As argued by the above-mentioned organization, and other actors, such as the Mexican Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), the emergence of these vigilante groups, and their legitimization and recognition by the state, raise a number of concerns from a human rights perspective.
Mexico already has a shaky human rights record as a result of its security strategy. According to HRW, some of the most egregious human rights violations resulting from the countries’ efforts to combat organized crime are: killings, enforced disappearances, rape, and torture committed by armed forces and the police. These, and other abuses, could worsen as a result of the emergence and legitimization of the self-defense groups, since accountability is very weak.
Additionally, experts are concerned that by giving legitimacy to these groups, the state is openly allowing them to take justice into their own hands, without any due process guarantee. Thus, there is a high risk that these groups can become engaged in private vengeance activity. There is suspicion that members of these groups have taken part in criminal activities themselves under the cover of protecting their communities, generating a vicious-cycle in which the vigilantes can become the new violators. Finally, several actors are concerned that the situation could easily get out of hand leading to widespread abuse as vigilantes are becoming more sophisticated and are starting to protect more than their own homes and families. For example, mining companies in the region have allegedly “hired” them for protection, and similar groups are starting to appear in other states such as Guerrero.
From a human rights perspective, not recognizing the self-defense groups does not seem to be a viable option either. The state has proven incapable of providing basic security guarantees to the people in this region, and taking away their arms without guaranteeing their protection would be the same as leaving them at the mercy of the Knight Templars. Additionally, even if these self-defense groups could engage in abuse, some control seems better than no control at all.
There is no easy solution to this dilemma, and meanwhile, regular citizens who fear the loss of their property, their families’ lives, and the general violence are caught up in this quagmire, and are left with little options but to support or join the self-defense groups. Since the state has failed in its duty to protect and provide basic security guarantees for the people of Michoacán, the existing vigilante groups are demanding support from community members.
It is for these people that live in constant fear that we ought to be cautious to prize Mexico’s recent “victory” as an absolute sign of success. It is for them that we should continue looking for comprehensive solutions to combat organized crime that include: fighting corruption of armed and police forces, providing capacity-building and education on human rights to avoid abuse, and above all providing viable economic and social alternatives so that young men and women are not recruited into the cartels.
Christiane is a recent graduate of Columbia University where she obtained a Master in Human Rights Studies. Her research focuses on human rights and development policies, particularly in Latin America. She has worked in various capacities in the social protection sector of the Mexican government, and is currently an intern at the Center for Economic and Social Rights.