A new study from a Mexico security expert examines the driving factors behind the explosion of vigilante groups around the nation over the past several years.

In his recently published paper, “Inequality and the Emergence of Vigilante Organizations: The Case of Mexican Autodefensas,” Brian Phillips shines a light on the vigilante groups that emerged in Mexico beginning in 2013.

Phillips, a professor at Mexico City’s Economic Research and Teaching Center (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas), identifies two basic types of vigilante organizations: first, the organically-emerging groups of citizens banding together; and second, groups set up by wealthy patrons, often in response to a threat to their business interests.

In other words, there are grassroots and top-down vigilante groups. Though self-defense organizations emerged throughout the country — according to Phillips, in 2013 they operated in 70 different municipalities scattered across 13 of the country’s 32 states — the majority of these groups sprouted up in a handful of communities in Michoacán and Guerrero.

Phillips’ new work seeks to figure out why. Unsurprisingly, given the title, he sees local economic inequality as the most important force driving the development of vigilante groups. Municipalities with a higher Gini coefficient (a commonly-used measure of inequality) are far more likely to see the development of vigilante groups.

Phillips offers varied explanations as to why inequality would drive vigilantism. One is that economically unequal societies tend to be unequal in terms of security as well, with only a narrow swath of communities able to ensure their well-being thanks to private security forces. In such towns, it is also likely that the official security agencies are more responsive to wealthy citizens, giving them a greater ability to seek justice through the legitimate system than would be the case for their poorer neighbors.

As a consequence, the non-wealthy fall back on self-defense groups as a last resort; it is their only chance at achieving something resembling the peace and prosperity that the rich enjoy.

There is a contagion factor in the spread of vigilantism, and the successes of a group in one town often inspire nearby communities to form similar organizations.

A second factor may be that it is easier to organize a vigilante group within a more stratified community. There are obvious candidates to fund and lead the enterprise — namely, the wealthy — just as there is a poorer group that is likely more willing to “engage in the dirty work of actual violence.” In many cases, an existing economic relationship is simply transferred over to the vigilante group, with bosses leading their employees when they take up arms.

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In placing inequality at the top of the list of factors, Phillips downplays other commonly mentioned drivers of vigilantism, such as high crime rates and lack of capacity of local government institutions, which he finds to be far less reliable predictors of the emergence of vigilante groups. Phillips also tested for other possibly related factors, such as the presence of indigenous speakers and the proportion of land under communal ownership in Mexico’s ejido structure. However, he similarly found that these factors were not as strongly associated with vigilantism as economic inequality.

According to Phillips, an increase in homicides correlates with a greater likelihood of vigilante groups when comparing moderately violent areas to mostly peaceful ones. But the most violent cities are not those most likely to witness the emergence self-defense groups. This seems to be born out in the case of Michoacán, which is consistently dangerous, but never among the worst in Mexico.

While an increase in crime would seem to increase the usefulness of vigilante groups, one possible explanation for the imperfect correlation is that vigilantes can be scared off as well. As Phillips puts it, “if violent crime levels become too high, it is too dangerous for vigilantes to operate.”

Phillips also finds a relationship between the presence of a vigilante group in a given town and the existence of a similar group in a neighboring municipality. This suggests that there is a contagion factor in the spread of vigilantism, and the successes of a group in one town often inspire nearby communities to form similar organizations. Such a finding also squares with the intimate picture of the self-defense groups presented in the documentary “Cartel Land.” In the film, vigilante pioneer José Manuel Mireles appears barnstorming around Michoacán, inspiring locals from one town to the next to follow his example and take up arms.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes

Phillips’ work offers some potential insights for Mexican officials seeking solutions to the security dilemma generated by the vigilante phenomenon. His paper suggests where to concentrate public security resources: cities with high levels of inequality, medium crime rates, and vigilante groups operating nearby. It also offers guidance for addressing fundamental drivers of vigilantism, like poor and middle-class dissatisfaction with security agencies and, of course, economic inequality.

The paper also broaches some topics that merit further study, which may add further wrinkles to Phillips’ findings. He measures government capacity using a handful of proxies, including the number of libraries, governmental autonomy, and per capita gross domestic product (GDP). However, as Phillips notes, these are imperfect metrics; it is not hard to imagine nominally wealthy cities with a constellation of library facilities whose government is nonetheless unable to ensure security for many of its citizens.

It is also unclear that the role of economic inequality in contributing to vigilantism is as prominent as Phillips’ study suggests. In detailed accounts of Michoacán’s self-defense groups, whether in “Cartel Land” or The New Yorker, what often comes across is the locals’ sense of hopelessness, derived from the perception that criminal groups and legitimate political and business leaders are inextricably linked. In Michoacán, this includes not just documented ties between government officials and leading criminal groups, which are all but standard; it also stems from apparent criminal influence over prominent media outlets’ coverage of Michoacán, local criminal groups’ wholesale takeover of extractive industries, and their campaign of intimidation against major national and multinational firms.

These accounts suggest that a feeling of hopelessness could contribute significantly to citizens’ willingness to take up arms. If criminal groups will not let law-abiding citizens lead a normal life, and the state offers no recourse, then vigilantism makes some sense. This logic also coincides with research mentioned by Phillips that suggests support for vigilantism — though not necessarily participation — coincides with distrust of governing institutions. However, Phillips’ quantitative tests would likely not capture this sentiment.

Despite these caveats, Phillips’ research is genuinely insightful and original, and his basic finding that local inequality is the best predictor of vigilante activity clearly merits serious consideration. Nonetheless, Mexico’s understanding of the vigilante phenomenon remains incomplete, and further research on topics that Phillips and others have examined could help clarify some of these complex issues.

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