Twelve members of a self-defense group in Mexico's Michoacan state went missing after going out on patrol in November 2014. Their families now say that police were involved -- whatever the truth of the matter may be, the case is indicative of a wider problem in Mexico: lack of justice for the disappeared, including and especially for those who don't fit the profile of an ordinary civilian.
There's a few novelties worth noting in the southwestern department of Michoacan when it comes to the traditional way Mexico's "drug war" has played out.
There's the degree to which criminal group the Knights Templar penetrated the state, for one thing. Then there's the legalization of the armed self-defense groups meant to combat them, for another. And don't forget the difficulty in distinguishing between legal versus illegal activities by certain state institutions. All of this suggests that Michoacan's policies must go beyond the traditional response to organized crime.
The conflict between self-defense groups, the Knights Templar, and the state has resulted in some particularly violent episodes. One example is the disappearance of 12 self-defense group members last November. They traveled to the small town of Apatzingan on a Saturday, in a convoy of four trucks, only one of which returned, with no explanation of what had happened to the others.
Their families have accused federal police of being behind the disappearances. The heads of two of the missing later appeared on a road in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente region, where they'd actively served as vigilantes. The whereabouts of the other 10 are still unknown.
A Few Theories
Some family members have suggested the Viagras were possibly involved, a criminal group that has gained strength in this new era of organized crime in Michoacan. In fact, out of the four trucks that made up the convoy to Apatzingan, the only one that returned belonged to Nicolas Sierra Santana, one of the brothers who allegedly lead the Viagras.
Given the lack of other information, we can say that the federal police have been hesitant to clearly support one self-defense group versus another, so their motive in "disappearing" a group of vigilantes isn't immediately apparent.
Notably, federal police have also played an important role in combating the Viagras, including the take-over of the mayor's office in Apatzingan – the Tierra Caliente region's unofficial capital -- in January. As Proceso has reported, there is evidence that federal forces committed extrajudicial killings during these events.
Additionally, we can say also say that it's unlikely that the federal police and the Knights Templar collaborated in "disappearing" these vigilantes, given the bloody attacks that the police suffered at the hands of Knights Templar leader Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," prior to his capture earlier this year.
The most plausible hypothesis is that this was the Knights Templar's doing. The group is still active in the Tierra Caliente region where the decapitated heads of two vigilantes were found, although a banner left at the scene was signed in the name of the "Michaocan Guard." To a lesser extent, it is also possible that the disappearances were due to a rivalry between the self-defense groups, given that the disappeared -- according to some sources -- were close to jailed vigilante leader Jose Mireles.
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Michoacan Needs Truth and Justice
In any case, the disappearances are indicative of a wider problem. The Knight Templar's emphasis on extortion -- and the way in which federal forces have managed the security crisis -- have created a new type of victim of organized crime. By and large, these victims -- including the vigilantes who went missing in Michoacan -- are not always recognized as such by the government, but are still in need of justice.
Even though the self-defense groups were meant as a response to Mexico's conflict, their mixed origins means that they are in fact continuing the conflict and even creating new ones. These vigilante groups are not solely made up of people affected by the Knights Templar who have decided to take up arms against them. They also consist of members of criminal groups who are trying to take advantage of the Knights' weakness. What's more, some self-defense force members are ex-Knights who -- either out of ideology or self-interest -- have switched sides.
The difficultly in determining who is and isn't a criminal is a principal obstacle to achieving true peace in Michoacan. Changing the name which the vigilantes go by to "Rural Self-Defense Forces" isn't enough -- what's needed is a broader policy of reconciliation that involves both truth and justice.
Should it emerge that state actors indeed participated in the disappearance of the vigilantes, this would only amplify the challenges that authorities face. Notably, Mexico is currently in the middle of passing a law that would standardize the penalty for forced disappearances throughout the country, with support from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But there are still serious problems when it comes to the classification of who is legally considered "disappeared" and who isn't. Only a state institution can label something as a "forced" disappearance, but there is nevertheless little information about the circumstances under which thousands have gone missing. Another issue is that some criminal acts are similar to forced disappearance, but are not classified as such because authorities do not intervene. One example is the so-called “kidnapping camps,” in which dozens of people are held hostage.
All of this makes the conflict between the Knights Templar, the self-defense groups, and the state a blurry one. If we wanted to put an end date on how long it would take to dismantle the network of political protection that criminal groups receive in Michoacan, we would be talking about years. Nontheless, an important step towards getting real results -- in Michoacan and elsewhere -- will be recognizing the disappeared, as well as those displaced from their homes by the Knights Templar, and those affected by extrajudicial killings or other manisfestations of the state's excessive use of force.
Cases like the missing vigilantes in Michoacan isn't the typical type of crime traditionally associated with Mexico's so-called "drug war." But it could yet be an opportunity to analyze new approaches to security, and thus contribute to the shift in policy that Mexico's crisis requires.
*Jesus Perez Caballero has a Ph.D. in International Security from the Instituto Universitario General Gutierrez Mellado (Madrid, Spain) and works as an independent researcher on organized crime, drug trafficking and criminal law in Latin America.