A new report examines the factors that enable indigenous resistance to organized crime in Mexico — an interesting framework for understanding how indigenous communities counter cartel influence but one that also needs to take into account regional criminal dynamics.

The study, entitled “Indigenous Resistance to Criminal Governance: Why Regional Ethnic Autonomy Institutions Protect Communities from Narco Rule in Mexico,” compares indigenous societies in two regions hard-hit by criminal violence: Guerrero, in central Mexico, and Chihuahua, in north Mexico.

Both are important drug producing states and trafficking corridors. Yet the indigenous communities of eastern Guerrero’s Montaña/Costa Chica region have resisted violent takeover by drug cartels, whereas the Tarahumara people of Chihuahua have been devastated by them. The authors quantify this by examining the incidence of organized crime-related murders in the two regions.

In the period under study from 2007 to 2012, the rate of organized crime-related murders in 11 indigenous municipalities in Montaña/Costa Chica was only 12 per 100,000 inhabitants – despite the rate in Guerrero’s nearby Tierra Caliente region reaching 95 per 100,000.  In the Sierra Tarahumara, it was 53.63 per 100,000.

To explain this difference, the study identifies two factors which determine indigenous communities’ capacity to resist organized crime: community governance structures, and history of mobilization.

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In eastern Guerrero, indigenous communities are governed through democratic assemblies, which select leaders based on their history of voluntary service. Positions of authority are unpaid and answer directly to the community through the assemblies. This creates an honor-based governance system which, the authors argue, makes leaders less susceptible to corruption.

These communities have also participated in indigenous activist movements since the 1980s, fostering cooperation and enabling the creation of an autonomous judicial and policing system known as the CRAC-PC. The CRAC-PC is lightly armed and has the authority to investigate offences, which are then tried through the community assemblies. If found guilty, the offender is assigned a program of community service, with the aim of rehabilitation.

The authors argue that such institutions allow the communities to “scale up” their traditional honor-based systems. They also allow villages to find strength in numbers, resisting takeover by outsiders. Although some sell opium crops to the cartels, they do so on their own terms.

In the Sierra Tarahumara, although traditional governance systems are similar, indigenous communities are isolated from each other, with little history of coordinated mobilization. They have therefore been unable to replicate eastern Guerrero’s regional institutions, and have consequently seen their communities ravaged by criminal violence, narco recruitment and forced displacement.

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Indigenous communities are often thought to be more vulnerable to organized crime, due to their poverty and marginalization. This report provides a more nuanced framework to study indigenous responses to criminal incursion, although the theory must be put in light of complex local dynamics when considering its implications for regions where drug cartels are tightening control.

These regions include Guerrero itself, where indigenous communities have suffered under the spiral of criminal violence. Guerrero was the third most violent state in the country in 2018, with a homicide rate of 61.35 per 100,000. It also accounted for 44 percent of Mexico’s forced displacements, exacting a devastating toll on the state’s indigenous population.

The CRAC-PC region has also come under heightened threat and  on 13 April 2019, Julián Cortés, one of the three coordinators of the CRAC-PC, was assassinated.

But in interview with InSight Crime, the report’s authors expressed optimism about the CRAC-PC’s resilience. They pointed to an investigative commission created by the CRAC-PC in response to Cortés’ murder, which identified and alerted the community to an effort by the cartel Los Rojos to enter the region.

“Their internal and external control mechanisms have allowed the CRAC-PC to regroup in the face of the first murder of a high-ranking member,” they observed.

Potentially more concerning, in their view, are tensions between the CRAC-PC and the State. Since 2018, the legal framework for indigenous police institutions has come under attack, threatening to convert the CRAC-PC into an illegal force.

The authors also highlight the difficulties of extending successful models like the CRAC-PC. The CRAC-PC is one manifestation of a wider vigilante movement in Guerrero, created as rural communities have rallied to defend themselves from narco violence. But many lack the strong communal norms which underpin the CRAC-PC’s accountability. Some have been accused of mob rule, criminal operations, or even partnering with the cartels themselves.

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Neighboring Oaxaca, fast becoming one of Mexico’s latest narco battlegrounds, provides an interesting counterpoint to the report’s observations. Its indigenous communities – particularly the Triqui, in northern Oaxaca – are becoming increasingly important producers of opium and marijuana, while criminal violence has spiraled across the state.

In the Triqui region, communities have worked alongside narcos to resist the army’s eradication of their opium fields. Conversely, on a regional level, indigenous networks such as the indigenous peoples’ defence committee (Comité de Defensa de los Pueblos Indígenas – CODEDI) claim that the State has allied with criminal interests to push forward megaprojects on their lands, attacking and harassing those who resist.

As in Guerrero, Oaxaca’s indigenous have a strong history of regional mobilization, although it is complicated by multiple land conflicts between indigenous groups.

“All villages have at least one meeting a month,” Cesar Mendoza, a political analyst from Oaxaca, told InSight Crime. “Then they organize in networks of villages at regional level… They make a kind of self-defence system, which protects them from outsiders.”

Mendoza agreed that this gives Oaxaca’s indigenous communities an advantage over those of the Sierra Tarahumara, which can be easily cut off and surrounded and controlled by cartels.

However, he is wary of the word “resistance.”

“I think, rather than resistance, it gives them more capacity for negotiation,” he said. “They can negotiate with the drug cartels because they control the land. And what the drug cartels don’t want is for them to stop planting [drug crops], because that’s their primary material.”