TSG IntelBrief: The Rise of Vigilante Militias in Mexico
• Mexican drug cartels command resources comparable to government security forces, with funds sufficient to bribe large numbers of government officials
• Armed citizen groups, initially labeled as vigilantes but increasingly recognized as militias, formed in response to cartel violence against local citizens
• The Mexican federal government has an ambivalent attitude towards the militias, ranging from cooperation to regarding them as armed criminal groups
• For the short term, militia forces in Michoacon have provided the security necessary for the Mexican government to reestablish control in former Knights Templar drug cartel strongholds.
For decades, narco-traffickers have used Mexico as a conduit to the US, creating safe havens along smuggling routes where Mexican authorities are unable to exert government control. The US and Canadian drug markets have fueled increasingly sophisticated and violent smuggling operations between them and Central and South American production and processing areas. In addition to the obvious security problems of the illicit drug trade, it has created significant friction between the US and Canada and the producing and processing countries, as the former expect the latter to interdict the narcotics. Conversely, Central and South American nations suffer the security burden and consequences of a trade driven by English-speaking drug users. Thousands of people lose their lives to the cartel violence every year in Mexico alone, making this the most pressing security concern for the Mexican government. Similar to drug cartels in South America, proceeds from the narcotics trade provide Mexican narco-traffickers with the financial resources to pay and arm hundreds of fighters and bribe government officials.
In 2013, despite a modest reduction in cartel violence along the US border, in the western state of Michoacon, the Knights Templar drug cartel expanded activity to include extortion against local citizens and attacks against power stations. The cartel is notoriously ruthless and assassinates critics to maintain control and intimidate the populace. In late 2013, the Knights Templar murdered Santa Ana Maya mayor Ygnacio Lopez Mendoza following his hunger strike protest in Mexico City for security assistance. He is one of dozens of local authorities assassinated by drug cartels in the past eight years alone. In response to the outbreak of violence, Mexican President Pena Nieto deployed federal security forces to the state. Despite these efforts, local citizens felt neglected by the government and began to arm and organize. Calling themselves fuerzas autodefensas (self-defense forces), Mexican authorities initially labeled these groups criminal vigilantes.
The position of the Mexican authorities is understandable; not only do the militia groups draw attention to the government’s inability to provide Mexican citizens with adequate security, but the groups themselves may pose a security threat. As Alfredo Castillo, the newly appointed director of security for Michoacon, noted, the Knights Templar began as an effort to fight local drug cartels. Reports of former Knights Templar fighters and other gang members deported from the US and later involved in militia groups give credence to the government’s concerns.
Little information is available on the identity of militia fighters and the group’s command structure. In published photos most militia members carried AK-47 or AR-15/M-16 pattern rifles. This type of weapon, along with other photographic evidence such as the use of colored cloth tied to rifle barrels for identification, indicate a level of sophistication beyond that of a vigilante group. The unit cohesion the militia demonstrated by taking and holding territory from an ultra-violent cartel also points to instruction from experienced trainers. Who paid for the weapons and the training is an open question; those responsible are unlikely to identify themselves for fear of reprisal by the cartels or government. The militias have incorporated some criminals deported from the US as well as former cartel members. While effective in the near-term these individuals may prove a liability in the future. By its very nature, the militia movement is difficult to quantify, but the Mexican government estimates that there are more than 10,000 members.
By late 2013, the Michoacon militia movement was well armed and organized, and began to take territory from the cartels. In mid-November, local forces overran and held Tancitaro, followed by Churumuco in late December. On January 11, militias occupied Apatzingan, the Knights Templar headquarters and by mid-February, news outlets reported militia groups operating in the neighboring Guerrero state. In retaliation, the Knights Templar committed murder and arson to intimidate local citizens but there are no reports of the cartel regrouping for a mass attack to regain lost strongholds. Should the cartel attempt to reestablish control over the lost areas of influence, the result could be an ugly and protracted irregular conflict that would challenge the resources of the federal government.
The militia actions of the past four months allow Mexican authorities to operate in previously restricted areas; this has led to a gradual shift in attitude and efforts to legitimize some of the militia groups. In some cases, Mexican security forces now operate alongside vigilante groups. In early February, militia and government forces cooperated to retake and occupy Apatzingan. The authorities are unlikely to legitimize all militia groups and will probably screen for criminal in the militias operating in proximity to government forces. News reports in mid-February indicate sporadic violence as Mexican security forces attempt to disarm some militias.
The Strategic Outlook
While events in Michoacon garnered media attention in the past months, the same security conditions exist in other Mexican states, especially along the US border.
The Mexican government has limited alternatives going forward. It can treat the local militias as armed criminals, or co-opt these groups into the fight against the narco-traffickers. Neither option is ideal. The first immediately pits the central government against a well-established populist movement, and risks further insecurity while the government and militias fight, allowing criminal elements time to regroup. The second legitimizes armed groups outside of formal government control—a dangerous precedent. Any human rights or criminal violations by a sanctioned group would discredit both the militia and the Mexican government. If national authorities fail to reestablish control over Michoacon—with or without militia assistance—the result could be endemic violence between the militias and cartels that renders the state ungovernable and discredits the federal government.
The drug cartels will continue to operate as long as North America remains to market for drugs originating in Central and South America. The money the drug business generates allows narco-traffickers to fight conventional military and law enforcement forces on near-equal terms. Until the affected countries adopt a comprehensive program to strangle the drug trade on all levels in conjunction with the US and Canada, the drug violence will continue to escalate with only temporary and local improvements.
• The February 22 arrest in Mazatlan of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman—the world’s most wanted drug lord—had no connection to militia activity as the takedown was the culmination of a long-term, world wide manhunt by Mexico and US drug enforcement and other agencies
• Relations between the militias and the Mexican government will deteriorate once the common threat of the Knight Templar cartel subsides
• Without effective government control, criminal elements could co-opt local militias; alternatively, the militias, government security forces, and narco-traffickers could fight one another, creating ungovernable zones in Mexico
• The situation in Michoacon has international visibility. If the Mexican authorities cannot regain and maintain control over the state, the Pena Nieto administration will be severely discredited
• Regardless of the outcome of the present battle, the militia success in Michoacon will serve as a model to citizens in other areas of the country. This may improve local security but at the cost of the local citizens’ faith in the federal government’s ability to provide security
• In the long term, the most effective way to destroy the power of the drug cartels in Central America is to eliminate the narcotics market in North America.
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