The nation’s drug war is being fought by a new force—vigilantes. What could this mean for the country as a whole?
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Daily life in Mexico in 2014 is reminiscent of an old American Western film. Outlaws extort money from business owners and force farmers to sign over titles to their properties. Terrorized villagers live under the constant threat of kidnap, rape and murder. Throughout the dusty, tumbleweed-covered towns, there are good lawmen, bad lawmen, and some who are a little bit of both.
All because of a war to control the drug trade.
Australian media outlet News.com.au explained: “The war escalated in 2008, after police corruption was identified and a major battle took place between two of the major drug cartels. Then President Felipe Calderon called in additional forces which increased the level of violence between authorities and drug gangs.”
Headless corpses stuck with ice picks, bodies strewn across highways their limbs twisted and mangled, victims boiled alive in giant kettles, and al-Qaida-style executions in public squares all stand as warnings for any who cross the powerful cartels, which earn approximately $19 billion to $29 billion annually from sales of cocaine and other drugs.
Throughout Mexico, particularly in its rural outskirts, townspeople are subjected to brutal and bloody violence. “Horrifying stories of random shootings, mass beheadings and mass graves have become commonplace,” CNN reported. “Gunmen think nothing of mowing down a couple dozen teenagers in a disco with machine guns and tossing grenades indiscriminately into crowds during holiday fiestas. Mexicans have almost become immune to carnage, it seems.”
“Many of the dead were believed by authorities to have been connected to the drug trade, but others were innocent civilians—including women and children—who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The government’s inability to control the situation has led to people taking matters into their own hands and creating their own version of justice.
Vigilantism is just the latest chapter in Mexico’s drug cartel story, which has resulted in more than 60,000 deaths since 2006. According to statistics from CNN, Mexico is responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.
Yet crime committed against one party often leads to the victim of that crime committing one in retaliation, which perpetuates the cycle—a pattern that has cropped up numerous times throughout history.
The New York Times printed a cautionary tale about vigilantism titled “Colombia’s Warning for Mexico” by writer Hector Abad, whose father was gunned down in Medellin, Colombia, by a vigilante-turned-criminal gang: “Mexico, like several Latin American countries, is able to guarantee security and the rule of law only in certain zones. The lifeblood of law and order manages to flow near the heart of power, around the big cities, but the farther away we get, the weaker the pulse, and in some places there is none at all. Police officers are few and corrupt, judges live under threat from local despots and strongmen, and the legitimate authorities have been paid off by illegal ones. It’s like the American Wild West, but with 21st-century armaments, private armies funded by the torrential flow of money from drug trafficking, and no prospect of a righteous sheriff riding in to restore calm.”
What could such bleak prospects spell for Mexico’s future?
In the western state of Michoacan, a crew of vigilantes made up of farmworkers, ranchers, doctors and other professions, have banded together and formed a self-defense force. Its purpose: take back what the local drug gang known as the Knights Templar have stolen. Fed up with the Knights’ brutality and the Mexican government’s failure to resolve the situation, this ragtag group has waged a successful battle and regained control of about a third of the state.
The Knights Templar emerged in this Pacific Coast region known for its tropical climate and rich soil in 2010. This was after it broke from the paramilitary self-defense group-turned-organized crime syndicate La Familia.
Though the mountainous region is dotted with marijuana fields and methamphetamine labs, the Knights’ reign extends beyond drug trafficking. The New York Times reported: “…The Knights Templar have added their own sinister complement to the panorama of local crime: systematic extortion on an unprecedented scale. Anyone who resists risks loss of property or life. The Knights squeeze homeowners, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, schools, industries, gas stations, public services, even tortilla factories and growers of lemons. No one is safe.”
In fact, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Knights have made a significant profit off avocado exports to the U.S.
“One local official estimated that the Knights Templar, named for a medieval group of crusading warrior monks, made $150 million a year extorting growers and packers, as well as selling avocados from the 5,000 acres they took from farmers.”
In the eyes of villagers, many local police officials are in league with the Knights. They believe the government has failed miserably in its duty to protect its citizenry. Local police not on the Knights’ payroll have been executed.
“One resident of the state, who did not wish to be named, told The Independent: ‘I would say the authorities in Michoacan have long lost the right to claim they are protecting their citizens. I don’t like to see people picking up arms, I deplore violence; but we have very little confidence in the police forces under the control of the Michoacan government.’”
The government has not been as successful as the vigilantes with retaking towns once held captive by the Knights. Federal police routinely watch from the sidelines or only lend backup support when needed.
One of the reasons for this is that federal officers from outside the region are not as familiar with the territory as those fighting to protect it.
“When legions of federal police arrived…to take over Apatzingan, the farming region’s main city and a Knights Templar stronghold, residents simply shrugged,” an Associated Press article reported.
“‘Police sent in from outside don’t know where the criminals are,’ said…a Roman Catholic priest. ‘We know of 10 warehouses where they are hiding armed men. They aren’t going to find them.’”
The self-defense force’s bloody, yet successful rout of the cult-like drug cartel has convinced a weary Mexican government to legalize the group. According to The Associated Press, “The Mexican military has a century-old tradition of mobilizing ‘rural defense corps’ manned by peasants to fight bandits and uprisings in the countryside.”
The news outlet further reported: “To succeed, the government must enforce military discipline and instill respect for human rights and due process among more than 20,000 heavily armed civilians, then eventually disband them and send them back home in the western state of Michoacan.
“In other Latin American countries, similar experiments have created state-backed militias that carried out widespread human rights abuses as armed civilians turned to vengeance, or assisted in mass killings. The Mexican army itself has been accused of rights abuses during the more than seven-year war against organized crime that has seen it deployed as a police force in much of the country.”
The state of Michoacan is not the only place in Mexico where such vigilantism is becoming commonplace. Neighboring Guerrero is also employing it, as reported by Reuters.
“Outraged at relentless extortion, kidnapping and theft as a wave of drug-related violence washes over Mexico, farmers, shopkeepers and other residents in the mountainous southern state of Guerrero are taking the law into their own hands as ‘community police.’
“Both state and federal police as well as the military leave them to their own devices, manning checkpoints at entries to towns, but venturing no farther.”
While vigilantes in these two southern states are heralded as heroes, in other places it is the drug traffickers themselves who are romanticized.
Farther north, in the state of Sinaloa, the Mexican government has had its hands full with the Sinaloa cartel, a multinational operation that generates billions of dollars. It was once headed by the notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In February, Mexico—with assistance from the United States—arrested Mr. Guzman, who not only inspires loyalty among cartel members but the general population as well.
“…Mexican actress Kate del Castillo—who coincidentally was cast as a powerful female drug lord in Telemundo’s Spanish-language series ‘La Reina del Sur’—tweeted that she has more faith in Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman than she does in government,” reported CNN.
Mr. Guzman is known to help the poor and, unlike his counterparts in the Knights Templar, keep the peace.
One 21-year-old psychology student who lives in Sinaloa’s capital of Culiacan told NPR that “no one here is happy about Guzman’s arrest. Because of Guzman, she says, everything is under control—people don’t steal, kidnap or extort here…he helped the poor, paved roads, gave people jobs—the list of good deeds goes on.”
The article describes how she and her friends spent an afternoon at the tomb of her boyfriend who was killed in a shootout. The group spent hours drinking and singing narcocorridos, popular songs that glorify the lives of drug traffickers in the country.
Much like Jesse James in the American Old West, Mr. Guzman has become a legend in his own time. Both are viewed as Robin Hood-like figures, whose criminal activities were to benefit the poor—a myth in both cases.
“From his naming on the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest billionaires, to his frequent supposed sightings and magical escapes, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman has been a larger-than-life drug lord who reached mythical proportions in Mexican ‘narco’ folklore,” Los Angeles Times reported.
“He rose from a simple low-level trafficker from Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexico’s opium and marijuana trade, to become the nation’s most powerful and elusive fugitive.
“For Mexicans, the capture of Guzman, reported…to have occurred in a joint operation by Mexican marines and U.S. federal agents in the Sinaloan coastal city of Mazatlan, is somewhat akin to Colombia’s killing of Pablo Escobar—or even the U.S. elimination of Osama bin Laden.
“His luxurious life on the run was the stuff of legend. More than once, he was reported to have entered a fancy restaurant, ordered cellphones confiscated, dined lavishly, then picked up everyone’s check.”
Yet for Mr. Guzman, being benevolent toward the local population was just part of running an efficient operation. According to an article in The New York Times: “Unlike its rivals among the Zetas or the Gulf cartel, whose reach was extended almost entirely by brute force, the Sinaloa cartel more frequently operates on the thinking that too much violence is bad for business, analysts say.
“Rather than moving into an area and trying to displace local groups, Sinaloa turns them into partners, using their expertise on such subjects as physical terrain and local politics, said Steven S. Dudley, an analyst for InSight Crime, a research group.”
Still, to be the head of Mexico’s most powerful and most efficient drug operation, Mr. Guzman has had to shed some blood. CNN reported that he “surrounded himself with an army of ruthless guards and enforcers…”
History records that there is a fine line between folk hero and violent criminal. It also records that in Mexico and other Latin America countries, vigilante groups can quickly transform into the type of violent gangs they were formed to fight.
Mexico’s predicament hearkens to the Reconstruction era following the U.S. Civil War. The mass production of guns during the war led to them being more available afterward.
As a result, a new society of gun-toting, justice-exacting lawmen who acted as judge, jury and executioner developed, as citizens lost trust in their government. This led to myths surrounding well-known criminals including the James brothers, Wyatt Earp, and John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
In the book, Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control, under a chapter titled “Reconstruction, Cheap Guns and the Wild West,” author Alexander DeConde wrote: “In the post-Civil War years, firearms became more accessible, more lethal, and subject to greater willingness by Americans to use them in homicides than in the past. As one observer commented, ‘The increase of crimes of blood has been beyond all comparison to that of the years previous to it. The war, in effect, demoralized and changed the habits and sentiments and conduct of thousands of the men who engaged in it on either side.’ Many, ‘reckless of life and hardened to the terrors of death,’ used their guns for personal violence. Crime and disorder rose throughout the nation at an unprecedented rate.”
Some of those who fought in the Civil War in various anti-government militia groups later went on to become famed outlaws of U.S. Wild West culture.
The book further stated: “Writers for pulp magazines romanticized gunslinging sheriffs, praised them for upholding a kind of order out of a gun barrel, and embellished their activities with myth. Dime novelists depicted other gunslingers such as Jesse and Frank James, who were former confederate guerrillas and murderers, James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, and William Barclay ‘Bat’ Masterson as men of heroic stature primarily because allegedly they could shoot straight…Earp and Masterson augmented their incomes as gamblers and procurers. As lawmen and gamblers, Earp and John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday robbed a stagecoach of eighty thousand dollars and murdered the driver and a passenger.”
While the Reconstruction era shares little in common with modern-day Mexico other than lawless violence, this time in American history illustrates that those with a mindset that they are above the law often go on to have a skewed sense of justice.
It is, however, understandable that ordinary Mexicans would want to protect their families and livelihoods. Many of those affected by the situation are striving to make an honest living. They truly want to see peace return to their country. Fighting back may seem to be the only option. Still, anyone who perpetrates violence of any kind—either offensively or defensively—inevitably ends up in a worse state than where they started.
Any crime-for-crime situation always leads down a dangerous path.
Whether it is due to the tit-for-tat that vigilantes are embroiled in (they execute cartel members without the benefit of a trial, then the cartel strikes back in brutal fashion), or the feeling of wielding power even over the Mexican government, vigilante groups have a history of becoming an area’s next criminal element.
Think La Familia and its offshoot Knights Templar.
“Mexican analysts believe that La Familia formed in the 1980s with the stated purpose of bringing order to Michoacan, emphasizing help and protection for the poor. In its initial incarnation, La Familia formed as a group of vigilantes, spurred to power to counter interloping kidnappers and drug dealers, who were their stated enemies,” according to the International Relations and Security Network.
As with those who epitomize the Wild West, there is a very real concern that members of Michoacan’s self-defense force, who “kill without qualms and take enemies to improvised jails,” will find it difficult to relinquish power when the time comes.
According to The Sunday Telegraph: “In Colombia, which was similarly overrun by out-of-control [drug] cartels, [self-defense] groups…committed massacres and trafficked drugs before they were disbanded in 2006. ‘It is very easy to fall into this type of model where a Frankenstein, with no government controls, is created,’ said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch.”
Ultimately, violence leads to more violence, and suffering to more suffering.
Mr. Abad expressed this in his essay published in The New York Times: “…these wars to the death always fail. What they generate is local powers defending themselves by arming to the teeth, and outlying territories turning into battlefields where life is impossible for defenseless civilians. The legitimate economy and tourism disappear, death tolls soar…and the final winner, inevitably, is not the state but some local narco-dictator with his own army of mercenaries.
“This is what we learned in Colombia: When the state is not present, it is local tyrants who take power and brutally impose their rules, which are nothing more than the defense of their privileges. The old Hobbesian concept, that the natural state of mankind is that man is a wolf to man, seems confirmed in these involuntary Latin American anarchist experiments. The strongest and richest wolf (from trafficking drugs or illegal mining) dominates the other wolves.
“Of course, every country is different. But I fear that today Mexico is making the same mistake Colombia did a quarter of a century ago. The vigilantes appear to be a cure—they are seen as saviors—but in reality they are part of the illness, one more illegal army, acting without restraints and financed by dirty money.”
It appears that Mexico is now on a path to repeating the mistakes of the past, which speaks to the general ineptitude of man to solve his problems. Even though it seems to be a hopeless situation, Mexico will one day find peace. Yet it will not be brought by the government, the drug cartels, or vigilantes trying to defend their territories.
To learn why peace is so elusive today, read A World in Captivity. This booklet delves into how the cycle of violence will soon be stopped and provides hope to those who eagerly await that day.