Mexico’s human rights commission has called on government officials to investigate the criminalization of vigilante groups in the state of Michoacan, documenting a series of foreseeable outcomes that are now coming to fruition.

In a special report (pdf) presented on November 12, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) recommended the government investigate alleged links between self-defense forces, known as “autodefensas,” and criminal groups in Michoacan.

The CNDH says Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR) and Michoacan officials should probe into possible criminal infiltration of the autodefensas and their participation in criminal activities, particularly how these groups finance themselves and source their weapons. 

The report states investigators “collected hundreds of testimonies” that indicated some self-defense groups “allowed people involved in organized crime to join.” These individuals adopted “the vigilantes’ cause to advance territorially, and with an eye towards gaining benefits and pursuing illicit ends.”

The self-defense groups have also come under fire recently from high-ranking officials in Michoacan. Governor Silvano Aureoles — who assumed office in October — declared that the autodefensas’ existence would no longer be tolerated. 

There has also been an outbreak of vigilante violence, as skirmishes between self-defense groups in recent months have reportedly resulted in at least 10 deaths. 

According to the CNDH, self-defense forces are present in no less than 33 of Michoacan’s municipalities, equal to more than half of the state. The report also asserts the rise in conflict accompanying the vigilante movement has resulted in 3,027 victims, with 400 killed and 500 displaced from their homes.

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Mexico is now facing down a monster largely of its own making. 

While Michoacan has a long history of vigilantism, the self-defense movement gained force in 2013. Armed groups began forming due to popular frustration over government inaction to combat widespread violence and extortion being perpetrated by criminal groups, particularly the Knights Templar. In June 2014, authorities launched the Rural Defense Force, which sought to bring disparate vigilante groups under the auspices of the state.

On the one hand, this approach made sense. Cartel violence was raging in Michoacan at the time, and the vigilantes were seen as the best enforcers to stop the Knights Templar. As InSight Crime noted in early 2014, the self-defense forces provided a temporary solution to this immediate problem.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico’s Vigilantes 

But Mexican officials could have easily foreseen the security problems now being caused by the vigilantes. Even before the launch of the Rural Defense Force, there were signs self-defense groups were carrying out criminal activities, and some vigilante leaders even acknowledged they had taken in former Knights Templar members.

Now authorities are confronted with a new set of criminal actors, further complicating the government’s job of establishing law and order in Michoacan. 

Governor Aureoles has made clear he wants to get rid of the vigilantes, but that won’t be so easy. Following Aureoles’ recent declaration that the vigilantes must turn in their weapons within the next six months, one self-defense group responded by blockading at least two roads. Previous attempts by the government to disarm vigilante groups (who possess military-grade weaponry) have also been met with stiff resistance.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

It is thus difficult to see how Michoacan can get out of this security quandary it has created for itself. Heavy resistance and bloodshed would likely accompany any forced disarmament and demobilization program. Nor is such a process necessarily an ideal model; in Colombia, failed paramilitary demobilizations during the early half of the 2000s gave rise to “bandas criminales,” or BACRIM, which are now the country’s most powerful criminal groups. 

Meanwhile, authorities have little to show for their efforts in dealing with the autodefensas. Homicides and extortion have only gone up in Michoacan during the last two years. The government essentially waved the white flag on the vigilante experiment early last month, when President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed 5,000 federal agents to secure the embattled state.

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