HomeNewsAnalysisVigilantism on Rise in Mexico as Drug War Rages
ANALYSIS

Vigilantism on Rise in Mexico as Drug War Rages

LA FAMILIA MICHOACANA / 18 MAY 2011 BY GEOFFREY RAMSEY EN

As drug-related violence increases in Mexico, and the justice system seems unable to cope, an increasing number of citizens are turning to vigilantism to protect themselves and administer justice in their communities.

One small town in Michoacan has come to the world’s attention. The mostly indigenous residents of Cheran rose up and barricaded their town to protest against the government’s failure to protect them from criminal groups. As InSight reported, the unrest began after illegal woodcutters, allegedly under the protection of the Familia Michoacana, cut and burned forests on community land. Now the town is on lockdown, and an armed militia patrols the streets daily.

Revolts like this have occurred fairly frequently in indigenous villages across Mexico since the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Accusing the government of ignoring the country’s poor and indigenous, these communities have demanded more autonomy, and have in some cases established parallel state structures like governing councils and police forces. Although most of these communities are located in the southern state of Chiapas, the phenomenon has spread to other regions as well, as a response to perceived corruption in local governments.

Another example is the community police force of San Luis Acatlan in Guerrero. As the online progressive magazine Upside Down World reported in January, local residents are elected to serve temporary terms as police officers, and justice is administered by a council of community members, not by the official state system. The article suggested that the community police force may offer a more humane approach to criminal justice. One man, accused of selling marijuana to a minor, was sentenced by the council to two months of “re-education,” or community service, an experience that he described to the author as transformative.

“We were sent to clean up kindergartens, clean up high schools, to remove rocks from the roads,” the man explained. “While we were in the re-education, the guards would talk to us, and the coordinators of La Policía would come and talk to us as well, about why we’re there, why we had been sentenced, and what it was all about. That’s better than the regular jail, where you don’t even know why you’re there, and where no one ever comes to talk to you. ”

Vigilantism in Mexico also has a darker side. The phenomenon appears to be increasingly associated with shadowy armed groups, who, unlike “citizen police forces,” are not accountable to their communities. Perhaps the most widely publicized vigilante campaign in Mexico began in Ciudad Juarez in January 2009, when an organization by the name of the Juarez Citizens’ Command sent an e-mail to local media outlets saying it would execute one criminal each day until order was restored.

A 2009 U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks indicated that the U.S. Consulate in Juarez suspected that the group was made up of former Zetas gang members. It said that Citizens’ Command might have carried out extrajudicial activities for the military.

In 2008, another such clandestine organization appeared in Chilpancingo, Guerrero, calling itself the Popular Anti-Drug Army. According to Mexico’s Proceso, the group has tied the struggle against drug violence to social justice rhetoric, and has been linked to the murder of an alleged gang member in the area. Although it has so far only been active in Guerrero, the group also claims to have active cells in other states.

More recently, in late 2010, a vigilante group known as the Omega Squads sprang up in Morelia, Michoacan. In leaflets distributed around the city, the group presented itself as an opponent of the Familia Michoacana. It said that instead of “throwing the heads of enemies into brothels,” like the Familia, the Omega Squads would fight the “dregs of society” responsible for kidnapping, extortion and murders in the state. As El Diario reported in December, the group claims to be made up of businessmen and landowners, who are “tired of the inability of the authorities of all levels to give us the security and peace we need.”

While these vigilante organizations try to craft a public image based on justice, some of them may in fact be front groups with ties to the criminal underworld. In Colombia, what began as a loose network of vigilante organizations morphed into the now-defunct paramilitary coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). Although the group’s stated enemies were Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas, the organization was linked to the deaths of thousands of unarmed civilians in the countryside, and became heavily involved in the cocaine trade.

Brazil’s largest drug trafficking group, known as the·Red Command (Comando·Vermelho), also developed as a self-protection group in 1970s. It later morphed into a paramilitary-style drug trafficking organization controlling territory in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Over the last decade control of the city has increasingly been taken over by vigilante groups set up to combat drug gangs like the Red Command. These often are made up of serving police officers, and in some cases have been accused of trafficking drugs themselves.

This process has already taken place for some vigilante groups in Mexico. As InSight has noted, the Familia Michoacana was initially formed as a community self-defense group. Indeed, one of the reasons for the cartel’s success is its strong loyalty base in Michoacan, where it sometimes provides social services to rural, isolated areas. Because of this, some analysts have referred to the group as a “de facto state.”

Ultimately, the history of these groups illustrates the perils of vigilante justice. Although secretive self-defense groups like the “Juarez Citizens’ Command” may have the potential to restore the rule of law in crime-ridden communities, their unchecked, anonymous nature increases the chance that they will instead perpetuate lawlessness and violence. Until security can be maintained across the country, these vigilante groups will continue to find support for their actions, fueling the violent cycle that has killed more than 35,000 in the past four years.

Compartir icon icon icon

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Related Content

HUMAN TRAFFICKING / 28 FEB 2012

The case of a Mexican organization which allegedly paid mothers to put their children up for adoption has highlighted the…

COLOMBIA / 8 APR 2020

Online scams, ransomware attacks and phishing email schemes have proliferated in Latin America amid the coronavirus pandemic, exposing the dangers…

KNIGHTS TEMPLAR / 21 SEP 2011

The Mexican army captured a man they say is a key deputy of the Caballeros Templarios drug gang in the…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

We Have Updated Our Website

4 FEB 2021

Welcome to our new home page. We have revamped the site to create a better display and reader experience.

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Events – Border Crime: The Northern Triangle and Tri-Border Area

ARGENTINA / 25 JAN 2021

Through several rounds of extensive field investigations, our researchers have analyzed and mapped out the main illicit economies and criminal groups present in 39 border departments spread across the six countries of study – the Northern Triangle trio of Guatemala, Honduras, and El…

BRIEF

InSight Crime’s ‘Memo Fantasma’ Investigation Wins Simón Bolívar National Journalism Prize

COLOMBIA / 20 NOV 2020

The staff at InSight Crime was awarded the prestigious Simón Bolívar national journalism prize in Colombia for its two-year investigation into the drug trafficker known as “Memo Fantasma,” which was…

ANALYSIS

InSight Crime – From Uncovering Organized Crime to Finding What Works

COLOMBIA / 12 NOV 2020

This project began 10 years ago as an effort to address a problem: the lack of daily coverage, investigative stories and analysis of organized crime in the Americas. …

ANALYSIS

InSight Crime – Ten Years of Investigating Organized Crime in the Americas

FEATURED / 2 NOV 2020

In early 2009, Steven Dudley was in Medellín, Colombia. His assignment: speak to a jailed paramilitary leader in the Itagui prison, just south of the city. Following his interview inside…