Mexico’s infamous drug cartels have terrorized the country for years. Since 2006, at least 60,000 people have perished in armed conflicts between the cartels and the Mexican government and, to an even greater extent, in turf fights among the rival drug gangs themselves. Public attitudes toward the traffickers have varied dramatically. In some portions of the country, people have treated them as modern-day folk heroes, and have been willing to look the other way while prominent drug lords provide money for schools, hospitals, and churches. Other Mexicans, though, have become increasingly angry at people they regard as thugs and terrorists. For that segment of the population, the belief has grown that the authorities are unable (or in many cases, unwilling) to confront the drug gangs effectively.
That perception has produced the latest phenomenon in Mexico’s ongoing turmoil—the rise of vigilante groups to combat the cartels. The latest episode is occurring in the western state of Michoacan, where civilian “citizen self-defense” militias have taken back control of several towns from the Knights Templar, a quasi-religious trafficking operation and the primary successor to the once-powerful La Familia cartel.
While the militias receive support from an influential Catholic bishop, Miguel Patino Velazquez, the federal and state governments adopt a more jaundiced view, warning militia leaders against expanding their operations. The rise of vigilantism in Michoacan, seems to have lit a fire under the federal government, though. President Enrique Peña Nieto dispatched several thousand troops to the state in an attempt to regain control from the Knights Templar, a group that had become so bold that they dominated affairs in many communities. Laurent Thomas, a correspondent for Agence France Presse, noted that the Templars “killed, kidnapped, fixed prices, and extorted everyone from butchers to tortilla makers.”
Michoacan is not the only locale that has seen a rise in vigilante activity to combat the cartels. An April 16, 2013, BBC report observed that, in the state of Guerrero, “a fledgling vigilante force has grown into an organization numbering thousands.” Even earlier, such groups emerged in areas such as Ciudad Juarez that had been hard-hit by drug violence.
In one sense, the rise of self-defense militias might seem to be a healthy development, since it confirms that a growing number of Mexicans are now willing to resist the power of the cartels and fight back, if necessary. But on balance, the growth of vigilantism is a worrisome sign. It suggests that people have lost any remaining confidence in the government’s ability to maintain order and the rule of law. That is similar to what occurred in Colombia from the late 1980s through the early years of the twenty-first century. As the power of drug gangs and their radical leftist guerrilla allies has surged, frightened and angry Colombians have formed right-wing militias in many rural areas. But some of those groups soon became little more than death squads, and for a time, Colombia seemed to be heading down the path toward becoming a failed state.
Most of Mexico has not reached that level of danger yet, but the surge of vigilantism could lead to the kind of atrocities that plagued Colombia. Vigilantes are generally not known to respect the basic features of due process. As they seek to impose order, it is certain that they will cut procedural corners. Many, perhaps even most, of their targets are likely to be cartel members who have committed odious criminal acts. But others may be minor offenders, or even be innocents who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If the Mexican government wants to stem the rise of vigilantism, it needs to restore peace and order to the country more effectively than it has to this point. But that is a daunting task. The drug trade’s enormous profits, caused by the trade’s illegality, is the most crucial factor empowering the cartels, and there are few signs that policy makers in the United States and other consumer countries are going to abandon the prohibition model anytime soon. That means that the cartels are likely to continue being very powerful, ruthless organizations. The increase in the number and size of vigilante groups willing to challenge them suggests that Mexico may be in for another round of violence and instability.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at TheCato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (2012).