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.

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