Mexico Legalizes Vigilantes to Fight Cartels

How It Works
Jan. 28 2014 11:33 AM

Mexico Legalizes Vigilantes

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Armed members of the so-called self-defence groups stand guard after taking back control of the community La Huerta, in state of Michoacan, Mexico, from cartel members, on January 17, 2014.

Photo by HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

The AP reports that ““Self-defense" groups confronting a drug cartel in the western state of Michoacan have agreed to join government law enforcement forces after months of firefights with gang members.”

Armed vigilante groups have become more common in Mexico since last year, particularly in the western state of Michoacán, parts of which had fallen under the control of the Knights Templar drug cartel. The vigilantes had often operated with the tacit approval of the authorities, who have evidently decided it would more productive to work with the armed groups rather than attempt to disarm them.

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As an International Crisis Group analysis last year noted, the issue of vigilantism in Mexico “is complicated by the fact that many communities, particularly indigenous, have a centuries-old tradition of community policing.” However, many of the recently formed, well-armed autodefensa groups are not comprised of members of these communities, and some may even by fronts for the cartels themselves.

The government of Mexico – a rising economic power and in most parts of the country, a fairly safe and stable one – understandably bristle at talk in Washington of a “failed state” south of the border. But given that monopoly over the legitimate use of force is generally considered one of the primary definitions of a functioning state, the presence of self-organized armed groups providing security in areas where the government has failed to do so definitely doesn’t look good either domestically or internationally.

This week’s move is clearly an attempt to regain some control over the groups, and it already seems to be paying off: A senior cartel leader in Michoacán was arrested today. But in the long-run, this does feel like a very dangerous gamble for the country’s new government.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.