A federal judge in Mexico has ruled in favor of three vigilantes accused of carrying illegal arms on the grounds they were defending themselves in the face of the state's failure to do so, throwing a new legal obstacle in the path of attempts to dismantle illegal self-defense militias.
In an interview with Noticias MVS, Leonel Rivero -- the lawyer of the three vigilantes from Aquila in the southwest state of Michoacan -- said the judge ruled they had defended their right to life by carrying weapons intended for the exclusive use of the military. The defendents argued the failure of the state to provide security and combat criminal groups left them with little choice but to break the law to defend themselves.
While the three men continue to be held on kidnapping charges, Rivero has said there is no chance of the arms charges being reactivated.
The men were the alleged leaders of a group of 40 militiamen captured in August 2013, 18 of which have faced charges. Rivero accused Michoacan Security Commissioner Alfredo Castillo of interfering in judicial proceedings in the case by sending state lawyers to coax away the other 15, who Rivero was also supposed to defend, reported Proceso.
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Since January this year, Mexican authorities have been working to regulate the activities of the self-defense militias, which emerged with the proclaimed purpose of protecting local communities from the actions of organized crime groups such as the Knights Templar. The legalization process began with the creation of a legal framework for the vigilantes and later the formation of a "Rural Defense Force" made up of vigilantes that would work together with government security forces.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes
As part of this process, all vigilantes not drawn into the new force were required to hand over their weapons. The consequences of failing to comply were made clear in late June, when vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles was arrested along with dozens of others after taking over a Michoacan town.
However, the government has faced significant public resistance to the dismantling of unauthorized vigilante groups, and the present case shows they may also have trouble prosecuting non-compliant vigilantes. If the government is unable to make the legal cases against arrested vigilantes hold up, it is a sign they have little control over the movement and thus puts the legalization process at risk.
Security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime that the case represented a "symbolic... defeat of the federal government." It did not, however, set a legal precedent for future cases -- five consecutive sentences of a similar nature would have to be issued in order for this to happen, he said.
While the present case could be appealed by the Attorney General's Office, this is unlikely to happen, said Hope, partly because the government will want to avoid further stoking the fire in a high-tension issue.