Mexican vigilantes complicate the president's positive message

The expansion of self-defense groups in Mexico has presented problems for President Peña Nieto, who is trying to turn the page on cartel killings and turf wars associated with his predecessor.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
A vigilante channel-surfs on a plasma TV while sitting in the living room of the house of a Caballeros Templarios drug lord, who fled with with his family following an uprising in Nueva Italia, Mexico, Thursday.

Townspeople gathered at dusk in the central square of this city of ranches and lemon groves, planning to pick a committee to support and oversee the activities of a recently arrived self-defense group here. The vigilantes gained acceptance when they recently ran off a cartel accused of everything from extracting extortion payments to making people it didn’t like in the community disappear.

“We don’t want any more missing persons. On every block there are one or two missing persons,” says Gloria Ayala, a retired chemist taking part in the town meeting.

“People here have more confidence in themselves than the government,” Ms. Ayala says.

But after a confrontation between government soldiers and vigilantes nearby left at least one person dead, questions are swirling as to how the government allowed armed civilians to take on the cartel-orchestrated violence across Mexico that federal forces are supposed to be fighting – and how President Enrique Peña Nieto is going to contain the violence associated more with his predecessor, former President Felipe Calderón.

The rise of these so-called “community police” forces has been largely welcomed in Nueva Italia, where townspeople say they get little support from local police or the federal government when it comes to shutting down organized crime in their back yards; and the government’s crackdown on crime and drug cartels over the past seven years has produced few visible results.

The vigilante organizations have gained ground, marching on at least 15 municipalities in Michoacán and also rising up in communities across neighboring Guerrero state. Mexican newspaper Reforma in March reported a presence of vigilantes in 13 of Mexico’s 31 states.

But when the federal government sent soldiers to seize weapons from self-defense groups in Michoacán earlier this week, an initial attempt near Nueva Italia Monday resulted in a confrontation that left four civilians dead, according to locals (the government has confirmed one death).

“There is no doubt: the self-defense groups are illegal and should not be delegated the responsibility of combating organized crime,” security analyst Eduardo Guerrero wrote in Reforma.

Trouble for the president?

The persistent expansion of these groups has presented problems for President Peña Nieto just 13 months into his six-year term. Peña Nieto has tried to turn the page on a period of cartel killings and turf wars that is more associated with Mr. Calderón's tenure, than with his own administration.

Peña Nieto has preferred not to talk about security, which his administration says has already improved in vast swaths of the country. He has focused instead on Mexico’s economic potential and his agenda of historic structural reforms achieved in areas such as energy, education, and telecommunications.

Improving Mexico’s image abroad has been one of Peña Nieto’s top priories, and analysts say speaking of security problems could complicate the president’s message.

“Something the Calderón people found out … is that it’s very hard to control [the security] agenda, because they don’t control the other side,” says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, referring to crime and drug cartels.

“The other side is capable of mayhem at any time and at inconvenient times and at times when they could extract a heavy price in public opinion against the government for what it’s doing.”

Peña Nieto promised in his campaign to crackdown on crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, and to start a gendarmerie. The gendarmerie is not coming together as planned and anti-crime groups say kidnapping has increased over the past year. 

The least worst option

Vigilante justice dates back decades in the forgotten pockets of Mexico, like the rugged hills hugging the Pacific coastline here. Peasant defense leagues also protected local residents in past years, Mr. Estévez says. Villagers in Cherán, also in Michoacán, drove out their mayor and local police force in 2011 after illegal loggers, allegedly acting in cahoots with a cartel, clear-cut local forests. At least half the municipalities in Guerrero state, south of Michoacán, have some sort of self-defense groups active, the National Human Rights Commission reports.

But the presence of vigilante groups presents a delicate situation, especially in Michoacán. The well-established Knights Templar cartel has meddled in everything from methamphetamine labs to extortion to exporting boatloads of illegally mined Michoacán iron ore to China. The group takes its gang-status a step further than most cartels, teaching from its own religious text and building shrines to its supposedly slain founder.

The recent confrontation between government forces and armed civilian groups here creates a confusing scenario for some: Are these vigilantes the good guys, or the bad?

“The government response has been contradictory,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security investigator at the Iberoamerican University.

Senior government officials previously spoke well of the self-defense groups’ leaders and even met with them.

Talks continue between the government and self-defense group leaders – who promise not to march on any more towns, but won’t lay down their weapons until senior Knights Templar kingpins are detained.

The self-defense groups say they are popular with the people, and that their arrival is applauded. They say they have no ties to rival criminal gangs – something the Michoacán government and opponents leading protests against them allege.

“To say [self-defense groups are] purely people that want to protect themselves is an exaggeration,” says Father Patricio Madrigal, parish priest in Nueva Italia. Rival cartels certainly have reason to want to see the Knights Templar weakened, and could be taking advantage of the situation. But Father Madrigal adds that to his knowledge, any offers to vigilante groups by Knights Templar rivals have been rejected.

After Monday’s confrontation, the local bishop, Monsignor Miguel Patiño Velázquez – whose priests have supported the self-defense groups – issued a blistering pastoral letter saying, “The army and the government have fallen into discredit because instead of pursuing criminals, they have attacked the persons that defend them.”

Locals, many fearful to give their names, speak of crimes commonly carried out here before the arrival of self-defense groups, such as extortion, kidnapping, and rape.

Farmer Calixto Álvarez says he paid 1 peso per kilo of lemons [approximately $0.10 for every 2 lbs] he took to the packing plant and 3 pesos per kilo for each kilo of meat he sold to a slaughterhouse [about $0.25 for every 2 lbs].

“It got to the point that they couldn’t take deliveries anymore,” Mr. Alvarez says.

He supports the self-defense groups and, like many, says he wants them to stay armed and patrolling the region.

“The community is angry,” Father Madrigal says. He fears that if the government can’t keep citizens safe and simultaneously crack down on self-defense groups, “We could see a generalized uprising. We could see war.”

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