The taming of the vigilantes

Will the legalisation of civil defense groups improve security in Mexico?

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On 27 January, Mexican authorities announced that the government would begin drafting policy to legalise civil defense groups and have them integrated into the Rural Defense Corps. These vigilante groups formed in response to the widely perceived failure of the Mexican government to combat drug cartel violence in the country. Such groups have proliferated in recent years; it is estimated that there are over 20,000 people across the country aligned therewith. Civil defense groups have fulfilled a policing function in areas that have been significantly affected by cartel activities, and have a strong operational presence in the western states of Michoacan and Guerrero.


The government has stated that the military and federal police will now work with these groups to combat drug cartels and curb narcotics trafficking in the country. Vigilante leaders will have to submit a list of their members to the Defense Department for the army’s approval; furthermore, the army will reportedly oversee the groups. In exchange, vigilante groups will be supplied with the communications, equipment and logistics necessary to conduct security operations. Government representatives have stressed that the partnership is an interim measure, suggesting that civil defense groups will be expected to lay down their arms and disband once the security situation has improved.

This development in Mexico’s approach to security raises two primary questions. Firstly, how dramatic is this policy shift? Secondly, will the legalisation and government regulation of civil defense forces lead to an improved security environment in the country?

Dramatic shift in policy?

The government’s proposal of collaboration with civil defense groups does not mark a significantly new approach to civil defense groups.

Civil defense groups and civilian groups have driven out members of the Knights Templar drug cartel in a number of rural towns in Michoacan in recent months. In doing so, vigilantes clashed with police as well. In addition, federal police have been barred from entering a number of towns, due to persistent hostilities in Guerrero. While this demonstrates that the relationship between vigilante groups and police is a far cry from a buddy cop film, it is not completely fraught. There has been tacit support of civil defense groups from security forces, particularly in Michoacan. There are reports of police welcoming assistance from civil defense groups during armed clashes with cartels. The move to temporarily legalise vigilante groups suggests that the government concedes that its security forces do not have the capacity, will or public support to contain drug-related violence in the country.

A safer Mexico?

It is important to note that one of the main reasons vigilante groups have made considerable headway in combating cartels in rural Mexico is that they are not compelled to follow due process, respect human rights, or abide by the same code of conduct as government security forces. Federal police have greater accountability, and as such, have more limited means available to them to fight cartels (who typically use dirty tactics to achieve their desired ends). Civil defense groups appear to have filled that gap, so to speak. If these vigilante groups do adhere to government regulation, the extrajudicial tactics available to them will be restricted, and thus the efficacy of these groups in combating drug cartels may be eroded.

In addition, there have been increasing reports that a number of vigilante groups in western Mexico are proxies for rival cartels and criminal organisations. If these groups are corrupt, their involvement in official police operations could severely undermine the security environment in Mexico.

The government has stated that civil defense groups will be subject to some form of formal training by the Defense Department. However, Mexico’s federal police and military have themselves been subject to accusations of human rights abuse, as well as of disrespecting the rule of law and due process. Moreover, critics have claimed that rudimentary police training will not provide vigilante groups with esprit de corps.

Critics have warned that past experiments of this nature in other Latin American countries have failed dismally. In Colombia, pro-government paramilitary patrols were responsible for a number of serious human rights violations and openly engaged in illicit activities in the 1990s, when armed groups such as the AUC were legally and logistically backed by the government. Indeed, since paramilitary groups were demobilised between 2003 and 2006, a number of former paramilitary forces have become members of transnational criminal organisations in the country, also known as bandas criminals, or BACRIMs.

In light of these concerns, it is possible that the legalisation of civilian defense groups may have long-term effects on the security environment in Mexico. The government and vigilante groups are still in the process of formulating the policy for legalisation and cooperation. Whether the outcome of this venture is positive for Mexico’s security environment will largely depend on the terms and conditions thereof.

To limit potential fallout from unclear mandates and procedures, the following issues should be addressed in the final draft of the policy:

  • A specific timeframe should be provided for the legalisation period; moreover, contingencies for once the groups are expected to disband should be clearly laid out.
  • Strict vetting procedures should be implemented for civil defense group members involved in official operations.
  • Clear delineation of civil defense group roles and procedures.
  • Hierarchies for personnel.
  • Areas of jurisdiction.
  • Monitoring and evaluation of civil defense group performance.

Article by Lara Sierra-Rubia – Follow her @AmericaAnalyst

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2 thoughts on “The taming of the vigilantes

  1. Barend Lutz says:

    There is an awesome Vice documentary on this. It is a bit outdated, but still great.

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