The Future of Mexico’s Self-defense Groups

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On February 8, 2014, hundreds of members of Michoacán’s self-defense units (locally known as autodefensas) entered the town of Apatzingán, near Mexico’s southwest coast, along with hundreds of federal police and military personnel, effectively seizing control of the town that had been the stronghold of the Knights Templar cartel.[i] The day marked the culmination of a long and hard-fought campaign to rid the state’s Tierra Caliente valley region of the cartel, which is largely seen as a pariah criminal organization despite the cartel’s rhetoric of community support and social justice founded in quasi-Catholic doctrine.

The rise of the autodefensas in Michoacán occurred at the start of 2013, when a physician in the town of La Ruana, Hipólito Mora, and other concerned residents armed themselves to counter the Knights Templar and organized crime in general. Mora and his vigilantes spread out of La Ruana, “liberating” towns and villages in the Tierra Caliente valley—situated between Mexico’s central highlands and the Pacific coast. Many towns and villages concurrently established their own vigilante groups, comprised mainly of local farmers, ranchers, and local businessmen. By the time the autodefensas had surrounded the cartel’s stronghold of Apatzingán at the beginning of 2014, their numbers were estimated at 20,000, coming from over 30 different community-based vigilante groups. [ii] [iii] The autodefensas operate autonomously and most do not have a rigid hierarchy. Each group elects or appoints a coordinator, who meets regularly in La Ruana to coordinate operations with the rest of the coordinators from across the state. Widespread resentment due to extortion, intimidation, theft of land and property, and acts of violence provided catalysts to foster rapid growth of this grassroots phenomenon.

While taking the town of Apatzingán does not represent a silver bullet to the state’s security problems, it does raise several important questions, perhaps chief among them: What role should the autodefensas assume when their raison d’être has ostensibly all but disappeared? Michoacán is one of approximately ten Mexican states that are host to local vigilante groups,[iv] meaning the fate of the autodefensas in Michoacán will likely have repercussions for those across the country and for the security of the Mexico for years to come.

On January 29, 2014, after months of mixed messages regarding the government’s position on the autodefensas, the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto determined to side with the vigilantes, incorporating them into a legal framework which legitimated the role of these groups in fighting cartels and organized crime.[v] The agreement between the government and the autodefensas requires that each member must register their personal details and their weapons with the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) in order to become a member of what the government has termed “Rural Defense Corps.” Each group would then be overseen by an army coronel.[vi] The move proved polemic, as many analysts believed the autodefensas in time could prove to be a liability for the government, as was the case with Colombia’s paramilitary groups that were legalized in the mid-1960s and became involved in illicit activities including egregious human rights violations.

Recent events have strained the relationship between the autodefensas and the government, suggesting the administration may have reversed course and now seeks to disarm them as it appears the Knights Templar cartel has been severely weakened and the government has regained control of most of the Tierra Caliente region. On March 15, 2014, a government official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said: “We are reaching the point at which we no longer need them” [the autodefensas].[vii] On March 13, 2014, Hipolito Mora was arrested for the killing of two members of a rival vigilante group just days after this group had reportedly killed a few members of Mora’s faction.[viii] More than a case of exercising the rule of law, the arrest appears to be a move to dismantle the leadership of the vigilantes.  The day before Mora’s arrest, 28 vigilantes were arrested for reportedly attempting to steal 24 thoroughbred horses that had belonged to the Knights Templar.[ix] The cartel had seized many farms, homes, and other assets from residents of the Tierra Caliente valley, and now conflicts are emerging over the spoils of war among the autodefensas seeking to claim their stake.

While the recent arrests suggest a reversal of the administration’s policy toward the autodefensas, they also indicate the growing salience of divisions between the groups. Even a year ago, accusations were raised that some of the groups were proxies for the Knights Templar’s main rival: the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJ-NG). In 2011 the CJ-NG had created an armed wing called the Matazetas to hunt and kill members of the Zetas criminal organization, all in the name of social justice and the defense of innocent civilians. The Matazetas orchestrated the killings of hundreds of supposed Zetas members, mainly in the state of Veracruz, and set a precedent for the CJ-NG to fund armed groups fighting in the name of the innocent. While the autodefensas have claimed that their operations are funded by revenues from farming and ranching, and the sale of assets seized from the Knights Templar, others have pointed to the emergent use of new assault rifles, vehicles, and other costly equipment as an indication that the autodefensas have been receiving funding from additional sources. On January 15, 2014, state authorities in Michoacán reported that intelligence indicated at least a dozen autodefensas within the state were receiving weapons and large sums of cash directly from the CJ-NG.[x] If true, such reports would help explain the reversal of the administration’s policy to legalize the autodefensas, as it would undoubtedly take steps to ensure the federal government is not sponsoring the proxies of a cartel it is openly fighting to dismantle. Additionally, it exacerbates the lack of trust among the autodefensas and is likely to lead to increased violence between their groups and a breakdown of coordination among their leaders. The administration may soon find that the security problem provided by the Knights Templar has been replaced by the threat of rural militias fighting over territory and possible drug smuggling routes.

The presence within the ranks of the autodefensas of Mexican-Americans and former immigrants to the US—some of whom are known to have criminal records and affiliations with organized criminal groups in the US[xi]—suggests that factions resulting from divisions among the autodefensas may seek to exploit national and international connections for their gain. Armed groups operating in a relative security vacuum in a state that serves as a trafficking route and a production location for illicit drugs are well poised to fill the gap left by the Knights Templar. While it appears that this has not happened yet, undoubtedly Mexican and American law enforcement and military personnel are monitoring the autodefensas closely to curtail this possibility.  

The outlook for Michoacán’s autodefensas is grim. On the one hand, the administration will probably continue efforts to arrest the leaders of the groups, and may soon issue an official revocation of the agreement legalizing the units. The legalization of the autodefensas threatened the administration’s credibility as many see the autodefensas as working for neighboring cartels, so the government will now undoubtedly think twice before implementing such schemes in other states hosting autodefensas. On the other hand, infighting among the autodefensas and links to organized criminal organizations will likely lead to increased violence in the Tierra Caliente region, as the vigilantes become more of a contributor to a problem than a solution. The lack of an internal command and control structure governing the autodefensas suggests that federal security forces will need to intervene to maintain the peace. Failure to do so may lead some of the autodefensas to develop into paramilitary groups, a scenario that has played out before in Latin America with abhorrent results for security at the local, national, and regional level.

Photo credit: CNN México/Cuartoscuro/Archivo


[i]Anthony Harrup and Jose de Cordoba, “Mexican Vigilantes Enter Key City in Michoacan State,” WSJ, February 8, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303496804579371461914708726.

[ii]Gobierno mexicano marca el alto a las autodefensas”, El Debate, March 15, 2014, http://www.debate.com.mx/eldebate/noticias/default.asp?IdArt=14163813&IdCat=6103.

[iii]Dario Martinez and Juan Pablo Mayorga, “10 cosas que debes saber para entender el conflict en Michoacan,” CNN Mexico, February 13, 2014, http://mexico.cnn.com/nacional/2014/02/13/10-cosas-que-debes-saber-para-entender-el-conflicto-en-michoacan.

[iv]These states include: Michoacan, Guerrero, Estado de Mexico, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz, Morelos, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. “Estados con autodefensas en Mexico”, El Debate, January 1, 2014, http://www.debate.com.mx/eldebate/noticias/default.asp?IdCat=17585&IdArt=13990172.

[v]Gobierno de Mexico acepta legalizar las autodefensas,” El Pais, January 29, 2014, http://www.elpais.com.uy/mundo/gobierno-mexico-acepta-legalizar-autodefensas.html.

[vi]Juan Pablo Mayorga, “’Ya tengo mis armas registradas, ya soy rural’: Estanislao Beltran,” CNN Mexico, January 31, 2014, http://mexico.cnn.com/nacional/2014/01/31/ya-tengo-mis-armas-registradas-ya-soy-rural-estanislao-beltran.

[vii]Gobierno mexicano marca el alto a las autodefensas,” El Debate, March 15, 2014, http://www.debate.com.mx/eldebate/noticias/default.asp?IdArt=14163813&IdCat=6103.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, detras de lideres de autodefensas: Michoacan,” La Jornada de Jalisco, January 15, 2014, http://www.lajornadajalisco.com.mx/2014/01/15/cartel-jalisco-nueva-generacion-detras-de-lideres-de-autodefensas-michoacan/.

[xi]Joshua Partlow, “A Mexican militia, battling Michoacan drug cartel, has American roots,” The Washington Post, January 18, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/a-mexican-militia-battling-michoacan-drug-cartel-has-american-roots/2014/01/18/30f96894-7f92-11e3-97d3-b9925ce2c57b_story.html.

About Author

Alejandro Gamboa

Alejandro Gamboa is an editor in chief at the International Security Observer and head of the Security Studies Division. Alejandro works as a researcher and analyst at a private security firm in the Washington DC area. His work helps private and public sector clients keep abreast of the threats they face in high-risk regions of the world. Born in the Seattle area, Alejandro received his BA from the University of Washington, majoring in International Studies with a specialization in ethnic conflict and nationalist movements. He obtained his MA in International Relations at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, where he wrote his thesis on the use of preventive violence by states to mitigate some of the most salient national security threats of the post-Cold War era. He is fluent in English and Spanish.

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