Las autodefensas: Mexican heroes or armies ‘out of control’?

During the last two decades, drug organisations have gained tremendous power in Mexico. These groups, combined with the corruption that pervades government structures, have created a vicious environment in which civilians are the most affected. MA International Political Economy student Carlos Arturo Aguilar investigates the recent trend for civil retaliation, and its effects on the balance of power and security.


Mexico’s cartels have gone beyond drug trafficking. In many towns they control the inhabitants’ livelihoods by setting taxes for producers, distributors and retailers. They also put tariffs on property depending on the size of house or the number of vehicles a family owns. People fear that the cartel will knock on the door someday asking either for money, women or the life of a family member.

But patience has limits, especially when life is at stake. Since 2013, it has not been rare to find towns patrolled by 4x4s with men and women carrying AK-47s and assault rifles, wearing bulletproof vests and equipped with radio-transmission devices. These people are the self-defence groups (autodefensas). Their objective: to reinstate order and security by driving out the drug organisations.

México División Política con nombres

By Yavidaxiu, via Wikimedia Commons

The southern state of Michoacán is the hottest case of the self-defence groups phenomenon. In February 2013, a group of traders, lime and avocado producers and other professionals organised the first groups in the state: the United Self-Defence Command (Comando Unido de Autodefensas). As of January 2014, the organisation claimed to have more than 25,000 active people in its lines, with another 140,000 who could be gathered for combat if necessary.

In an interview with Monitor Expresso posted on YouTube, José Manuel Mireles, one of the leaders and former spokesman of the groups, narrates how the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar, the dominant group in Michoacán) made the situation intolerable by imposing extremely high tariffs. When people could no longer pay, they were simply killed off. Denouncing the cartels was futile: anyone who dared was almost sure to be murdered along with their family. (During 2013, almost 990 murders in Michoacán remained unsolved.) Meanwhile, the local authorities were colluding with the cartels and the federal power neglected the problem completely.

The citizens had to act. They organised armed squads, set up security checkpoints and disarmed and chased away police they considered ineffective or to be colluding with the cartels.They rolled through the countryside liberating towns from the Knights Templar, apprehending or even killing suspected criminals.

By Spring 2014, the self-defence groups had taken control of 32 municipalities throughout Michoacán, though they claim to have done so only after residents asked their help to form their own militia groups. Alfredo Castillo, commissioner of the state’s Secretariat of Security and Integral Development, accepts that this is the outcome of an institutional vacuum that failed to provide the political guarantees that the people needed, through a combination of incompetence and complicity.

The autodefensas movement has now spread to an estimated 13 out of 31 Mexican states. The Instituto de Accion Ciudadana (Civic Action Institute) has counted more than 700 new paramilitary groups since 2010, which its president, Eduardo Buscaglia, considers to be ‘out of control’. Human Rights Watch has warned that this growth could unleash a situation like that lived in Colombia, where self-defence groups transfigured into brutal paramilitary organisations, kidnapping, trafficking drugs and provoking a cruel internal war between the State and the organisations that harmed mainly civilians.

This is precisely what the Mexican state wants to avoid. After an ambiguous initial response from the federal government, in January 2014 the state of Michoacán created the Commission for Security and Integral Development, amongst whose first actions was to merge the self-defence groups with the police. In January, the Michoacán groups signed a pactagreeing to lay down their arms and enroll in special police groups (policia rural) supported by federal forces. Since then, the policia rural has killed or caught several leaders of the Knights Templar. However, the agreement has not been as successful as the Government expected. While over 3000 members of the self-defence groups have so far agreed to the new alliance, there are many reluctant yet to lay down their arms, who continue to operate on the ‘illegal side’.

Public opinion is divided regarding to the phenomenon of the autodefensas. Some people consider their actions legitimate,while others question their illegal nature, the motives of the leaders and the source of their guns and equipment.

With José Manuel Mireles recently arrested for refusing to align with legitimate forces, Alfredo Castillo has declared the state of Michoacán free of self-defence groups. How long it will take for the government gain real control of the situation and regain public trust, however, remains to be seen. Either way, the growth of this extreme form of citizen empowerment serves as a wake-up call to negligent administrations as to what ordinary people are capable of in the face of great social insecurity.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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