Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Federal police and soldiers stand guard in Apatzingan, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Federal forces struggled to bring order to western Mexico as vigilantes battled a drug cartel.

Mexican vigilantes take on Knights Templar as government takes on vigilantes

The spread of vigilante groups in Mexico's Michoacán State, a response to the rise of a powerful drug cartel, has placed the government in a law and order Catch-22.

A small, nagging problem in Mexico developed into a full-blown security test for the national government this week after the military confronted armed vigilantes who had taken on organized crime in Michoacán State, ending in a deadly encounter Tuesday.

Vigilante groups have been popping up in communities across Michoacán, Guerrero, and Veracruz states over the past year, with Mexican newspaper Reforma reporting the presence of self defense groups in 13 states as of last March. Though the federal government has condemned the impromptu militias, it has done little to curb their spread.

Many vigilante groups claim local police have failed to protect their largely rural communities from drug cartel activity – violence, extortion, and a general sense of lawlessness – or in some cases are in cahoots with the criminals themselves. The groups also say the federal government's failures have left them little choice but to take up arms in self defense.

The Los Angeles Times reports that though the national government briefly stopped a handful of vigilante groups in Guerrero over the summer, “the government eventually decided to let them continue patrolling their communities. Members often ride in the beds of pickup trucks, bearing weapons as varied as antique rifles and AK-47s.” The informal defense groups often wear masks and enact justice on their own terms.

In one case last year, the governor of Guerrero appealed to the federal authorities to legitimize the armed community members “in the tradition of the state’s autonomous community police forces,” reports The Christian Science Monitor.

A wave of violence in the early 1990s prompted locals to take up arms in the name of self-defense; a network of largely indigenous communities created the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) in Guerrero, which still exists, albeit in a legal gray area as a system parallel to that of federal forces.

Under that network, 108 communities in Guerrero police themselves and impart justice locally. Volunteers don uniforms, carry credentials, and have received training and education in their roles – although there are concerns about fair trials and professionalism.

Other cases include a Mexican town that found "more security by throwing out the police.” Some ask if one illegal armed group “supplanting a more powerful one” is any kind of security improvement.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong urged armed groups to put down their weapons and return home this week, emphasizing that their actions were illegal. Late Monday night – after days of fighting between vigilantes and members of the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacán – townspeople in Antunéz came out to meet soldiers they were told were there to disarm them, according to The Associated Press. The encounter turned violent, with reports of government forces shooting into an unarmed crowd early Tuesday morning. The government has confirmed one death, while the informal defense group reports that four people were killed by the military.

The New York Times reports that vigilante group spokesmen in Michoacán said they wouldn’t disarm until the government captures top leaders of the Knights Templar, a drug cartel with a powerful foothold in part of the state.

“The only thing we are doing is defending our family, defending our villages,” Estanislao Beltrán, a spokesman for the self-defense groups, told a radio interviewer on Tuesday. “We are working people, we are farmers. The government hasn’t been concerned for 11 years over maintaining the security of our people.”

"We don't have confidence in the government," Mr. Beltrán said, according to the AP. "We've asked for help for years and have received the same. The government is compromised by organized crime."

However, there are claims that the vigilante groups themselves have been co-opted by organized crime, perhaps in an effort to gain turf from rival drug gangs. It’s an accusation the self-defense groups deny. Residents from various towns across the state of Michoacán have protested the arrival of vigilantes in their communities, according to a separate AP report.

Mexican news outlets have treated the vigilante groups slightly unfavorably in their coverage, but not overly so, reports our correspondent in Mexico. There are references to preventing the “cockroach effect” of vigilante groups spilling into neighboring states like Colima, for example, but also headlines that take jabs at the government’s inaction, such as “Michoacan: self-defense groups and the laissez-faire [approach],” which notes the scenario unfolding at the moment feels like history repeating itself.  

A presidential test?

Security in Michoacán has deteriorated under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, political analyst Alejandro Schtulmann told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Schtulmann says the president, who recently marked one year in office, has slowed the fight against The Knights Templar.

“The people were fed up and the government was doing nothing,” Schtulmann said. “Many people see [the vigilantes] as legitimate, so when the government now comes and says it’s going to restore order, it’s not well seen.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that President Peña Nieto is walking a precarious party line that dates back to the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) seven decades of “quasi-authoritarian” rule in the 20th century.

The government may have felt that the vigilantes were a helpful tool, an affordable means of destabilizing the Knights Templar, which had spread across great swaths of Michoacan and inserted extortion in some of the most minor rural business dealings. Government officials also may have been wary of crushing the vigilantes for public relations reasons, given the echoes of cherished rural uprisings dating to the Mexican Revolution….

"This is their way of accommodating dissent and taming it. This is the old PRI, the old Mexico," [Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico] said. "Why didn't they go in and disarm them? That's not the way the PRI works."

The Mexican government has landed itself in a “catch-22,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, told The New York Times. “If soldiers continue to disarm the self-defense groups, the government will be accused of being complicit with the Knights Templar, but if it stops it will be accused of protecting paramilitary groups.”

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