In failing to snuff out vigilantism, Mexico is running big risks.
The rule of law has long been a stranger to the sweltering lowlands known as the Tierra Caliente in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
The site of battles over land in the 1940s and 1950s, the area suffered an exodus of migrant workers to California. In the 1970s the drug trade took root there, attracted by the proximity of the port of Lázaro Cárdenas and the remoteness of the federal government in Mexico City.
Not content with trafficking methamphetamines, the latest mafia to lord it over the Tierra Caliente, the whimsically named “Knights Templar”, established a tight grip over its invertebrate society, co-opting local authorities, extorting protection money and raping women.
That proved too much for the Tierra Caliente’s ranchers and lime-growers. A year ago they rebelled, forming “self-defence groups”. These vigilantes now control 26 of Michoacán’s 113 municipal districts. When earlier this year they threatened to storm Apatzingán, a town of 99,000, President Enrique Peña Nieto dispatched a federal official, Alfredo Castillo, and a squad of federal policemen. Mr Castillo struck agreements with the vigilantes: they will be vetted, in theory at least, and then join an ill-defined “rural defence corps” under the army’s aegis.
The vigilantes have attracted sympathy from right and left in Mexico, which see them as legitimate expressions of popular desperation in the face of mafia violence and official neglect. The government seems perplexed. Mr Castillo said he would restore order “in 15 days”, but there is no sign that he has a thought-out strategy to deal either with the vigilantes or the lawlessness that spawned them.
That is alarming, especially since the germ of vigilantism has appeared elsewhere in Mexico. Experience in other Latin American countries suggests that Mr Peña’s people risk dallying with a monster. Colombia is the most notorious case. In the 1980s landowners and ranchers, faced with attacks by left-wing guerrillas, organised vigilante groups.
These quickly mushroomed into the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a national organisation of over 20,000 paramilitaries who slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians and stole their land while morphing into drug-trafficking outfits. Although most disbanded after a government security build-up, remnants have murdered more than 60 farmers to thwart efforts to restore stolen land to its rightful owners.
On the face of things, Peru’s experience of vigilantism was more successful. Villagers in Cajamarca, in the country’s northern Andes, formed rondas campesinas (a sort of neighbourhood watch) in the 1970s, to tackle cattle-rustling and rural crime. Further south, around Ayacucho and the Apurimac valley, in the 1980s and 1990s the army fostered lightly armed peasant self-defence committees. These helped defeat the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group.
Although the Shining Path has long since faded, the vigilantes are stronger than ever. In the Apurimac valley, they have turned into well-armed militias of coca growers. In Cajamarca the rondas are now led by rural schoolteachers from a far-left party; they battle mining companies and are the real power in the land, says Rubén Vargas, a security consultant.
The common element in all three countries is the weakness of law enforcement in rural areas. That is what tempts governments and security forces to ally themselves with vigilantes. This can bring short-term results against guerrillas or drug-traffickers, but in the long run it makes things worse. As Mauricio Romero, a political scientist at Javeriana University in Bogotá, points out, once vigilantes acquire coercive power, the temptation to use this for private ends–revenge attacks, drug-trafficking or other criminal activities–is simply too great.
The embryo of the monster is already implanted in the Tierra Caliente. The self-defence forces turn out to have members with dubious pasts and the kind of weaponry–assault rifles and improvised armoured cars–that is the trademark of narcos. They have split into warring factions, and are imposing and ejecting mayors.
Mr Peña entered office with one big new idea on security: speedily to set up a rural gendarmerie of at least 40,000 troops, retrained as policemen, from Mexico’s unnecessarily large army. By putting bodies on the ground and protecting the politicians and judges, this force would have been tailor-made for Tierra Caliente.
But the army and state governors killed the plan. Instead, a much smaller gendarmerie of 5,000 civilian recruits will launch later this year. That seems too little, too late. For all its recent successes against drug kingpins, the political defeat over the gendarmerie may come to haunt Mr Peña and his administration.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.