A Mexican Standoff

Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto spent the last year downplaying the country’s drug war even though the conflict (which has claimed at least 80,000 lives since 2007) shows no sign of abating.

But something has changed in the last twelve months. It’s been a year since the emergence of powerful self-defence (or vigilante) groups in the country. The groups emerged as a response to years’ of violence employed by the country’s ruthless drug cartels (whose crimes range from kidnappings and extortion to gruesome murders). The groups are comprised of farmers, businessmen and community leaders, all of which share a desire to cleanse their communities of violence and fear. In the state of Michoacán (the most lawless in the country), the groups are heavily armed, and are thought to number anywhere between 10 and 25,000. The vigilantes seek to cleanse their communities of the cartels by openly patrolling the streets, setting up road blocks, and actively hunting the criminals they oppose.

This month, Peña Nieto sent hundreds more federal police officers and troops to the state of Michoacán (to join the thousands already there). The world’s media has enthusiastically reported the Government’s optimistic hope of disarming the groups. The Interior Minister, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, applauded the President’s latest move, adding that vigilantes should join the local police force or give up their arms.

What hasn’t been so widely reported by the mainstream media are the violent clashes that have resulted from the latest initiative. Video footage and reports have surfaced online which (apparently) show clashes between police, soldiers and self-defence groups. One such report even claims that one confrontation resulted in soldiers shooting eleven unarmed citizens (apparently killing four, including an eleven year old child).      

Reports are often difficult to verify; the drug war is complex, and it isn’t always clear who is fighting whom. But what is clear is that there is a deep underlying mistrust between regional communities and the Federal Government. It doesn’t help that many Mexicans believe that the centre-right ruling party PRI (which governed continuously from 1929 until 2000, before returning to power in 2012) governs by making deals with the cartels.

Despite the Government’s latest optimistic proclamations, it is clear that many communities simply do not trust the current President any more than his predecessor. Michoacán vigilante leader, Dr José Manuel Mireles, has flatly refused to comply with the request to disarm until the cartels have been decimated. Dr Mireles argues that he will only support disarmament when all seven major cartel leaders have been apprehended, and the rule of law has been restored in his state.  

The Government, for their part, fear that the vigilantes will spawn into the very criminals they were set up to combat. In a recent interview with MVS Radio, Alfredo Castillo (who has been recently appointed as the administration’s Head of Security in Michoacán), reminded Mexicans that the Familia Michoacana cartel (which subsequently became the Caballeros Templarios or Knights Templar organisation) had also started out as a community group (set up to cleanse the state of the notorious Los Zetas cartel). I think we can all sympathise with the Government’s concern at having literally thousands of unregulated armed vigilantes roaming around the country. But it can’t be denied that the groups appear to be (generally) well-disciplined, popular, and extremely effective in combating the cartels.

The government could continue to send troops to disarm the vigilantes. But the likelihood is that the groups will actively resist the Federal authorities they distrust. A danger being that Federal Government may only succeed in driving the groups underground. This would have the effect of criminalising and further alienating much of the population. Continued confrontation can only result in more bloodshed, in which the only winner will be the cartels.

Alternatively, instead of brushing the drug war (and it is a war) under the carpet. The government could pursue engagement and decide to work with leaders such as Dr Mireles. It can’t be denied that the vigilantes have proved to be a highly effective and potent force. In the last year they have succeeded where Federal forces have failed, and in the state of Michoacán it is clear that the cartels are on the retreat. Moreover, the vigilantes possess levels of support amongst their communities that Federal forces could never hope for. The Government should waste no time in recognising their achievements, and accept that the vigilantes undoubtedly hold the key to securing long-term peace and security. The President must swallow his pride and work to bring the self-defence groups into the fold by legitimising their role in the fight against the cartels. Ultimately, confrontation has failed, and it’s clear that only engagement and cooperation can result in a solution to a war which currently has no end in sight.