The Outlaw Sheriff: A Closer Look at Mexico’s Domestic Security through its Vigilante Groups

Author: Andrew Karns, Johns Hopkins 


Picture driving through a highway in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, rolling over steamy fields of low trees dotted with an occasional palm tree. Hours lull by as the landscape, bathing under the bleary sun, offers no change in scenery, and the monotony of road trip is eased only by the string of towns along the road, whose names serve more as a marker of time than place. The car in front unexpectedly slows to a stop behind a line of cars at the entrance of another small municipality. This appears to be a roadblock.

One would reasonably begin to develop a cold sweat imagining a stop set up by local armed groups extorting every passing car. However, picture to your surprise (and relief) a ragtag group of men sitting around a rudimentary roadblock, busily engaged in a conversation, rifles casually hanging from their shoulders. As the car approaches a stop, an old grandfatherly face shaded by a large cowboy hat approaches the window, offering a smile from under his bushy mustache, and asks to search the car’s trunk. Following a short rummage through whatever may be there, he reappears and sends you on your way.

Drug violence and insecurity tend to follow predictable patterns, notably occurring along disputed border regions of cartel influence.
Drug violence and insecurity tend to follow predictable patterns, notably occurring along disputed border regions of cartel influence.

The explosion of self-defense groups in the rural regions of Mexico reflects a growing public fear that official police forces are no longer able to guarantee their safety against not only threats posed by powerful drug cartels but also petty criminals. In late June of this year, the arrest of José Manuel Mireles, the recognized leader of local self-defense groups in Michoacán, led to widespread indignation and protest from communities who lost their only tangible source of security. Indeed, these groups are made up entirely of volunteers armed with whatever weapons they happen upon. They come together with the common intention of defending their homes and communities.

The decision to detain Mireles stirred up a mix of public and political reactions and intensified the debate over the existence of local self-defense groups. These groups are vigilante bands of armed citizens who patrol their own communities and attempt to keep cartel violence at bay. Their organizational structure has a remarkable complexity, as some bands are simply volunteers who are “on call” when signs of trouble appear, while others are able to run regular street patrols and inspection points along major roads. The presence of these groups is embedded into the larger debate of security in Mexico: although these vigilante groups are entirely unsupervised and have no recognition from any level of the Mexican government, they are also the most trusted forces locally and have shown variable degrees of success. Their defensive force is unlikely to counter assaults from federal troops or drug cartels, but they tactically convince their attackers that control of a particular road or town may no longer be worthwhile.

José Manuel Mireles’ humiliating representation in the photo incited strong feelings of indignation among Mexicans who respected his commitment to leading self-defense groups in the state.
José Manuel Mireles’ humiliating representation in the photo incited strong feelings of indignation among Mexicans who respected his commitment to leading self-defense groups in the state.

Charles Tilly famously described a state as a local racketeering boss who guarantees its protection (through laws) if citizens agree to meet the owed quota (through taxes). This unique, if not cynical, view of government appears to be truer in light of the contemporary Mexican government, which is now struggling to remain on top. Violence has surged in the last decade, a result of powerful drug cartel groups fighting for turf and trade and a feeble national government caught in the middle of the chaos. Contrary to the perception of Mexico as an anarchical drug-lord state, however, violence and insecurity in the country tend to be extremely localized and usually follow clear patterns of turf wars and military mobilization.

On a more general level, however, the relative power of local drug lords can be confidently attributed to two major causes. The first is a power vacuum caused by the government’s incapability of adequately enforcing security, especially in regions contested by cartels. Not only are local, state, and national police forces unorganized, corrupt, and poorly trained, they are often absent altogether from municipalities both within and outside the city. Threats from local cartels to not meddle in their disputes are not taken lightly. To make matters worse, local judiciary systems are plagued with political and structural issues.This has only reinforced the skepticism of rural Mexicans of trusting the government to provide security.

The second is, quite surprisingly, caused by a recent boost in the Mexican government’s commitment to combat the violence. Felipe Calderón, president from 2006 through 2012, is largely remembered for his bold and controversial declaration of war against drug trafficking in 2006. He not only launched military operations to complement law-enforcement efforts but also explicitly distinguished drug cartels as “enemies of the state,” if only at the official and textual level. Though the results of these campaigns have been largely mixed, they have ushered a change in perception. Cartels can no longer operate as freely as they had in previous years because of a government that has become less tolerant to the violence they produce. Mexicans consistently name insecurity to be the most significant and most pressing issue they face. 

A pervasive fear floods communities where local cartel violence has forced police to remain quiet. Petty burglaries, kidnappings, and murder surge in regions where would-be criminals have in hand a guarantee of impunity due to police forces that are unwilling to intervene. Haunting stories reach the ears of newspapers about paramedics arriving hours late to the scene of an emergency to simply be sure that the area has cleared and is safe to approach. Hospitals are wary of treating patients that they believe cartel leaders would prefer dead, just as the media commonly self-censor their coverage of the cartels, all to avoid provoking the ire of local traffickers.

The handling of self-defense groups has seeped into the larger conversations surrounding Mexico’s public security issues. President Enrique Peña Nieto has pushed for integrating these groups into a “Rural State Force” under the management of each Mexican state, and Jesús Murillo Karam, the national attorney general, has continually emphasized the idea of “engaging” said groups with “as little violence as possible.” These aspirations hardly materialize in reality, as the arrest of Mireles has been attributed to political motivations due to his open opposition to the creation of the Rural State Force, and clashes between self-defense groups and federal troops often result in several deaths. Relying on vigilante volunteer security forces is precarious, but the need for them is unquestionably apparent.

Until the central government can consistently guarantee the security and justice that is lacking in in troubled regions, it ought to collaborate with—or at least tolerate—the self-defense groups that spring up in these areas. Reaching the point where this would no longer be necessary could be the defining feature of the government for the next decade. Earning the confidence of the citizens it is failing to protect would be a much more ambitious—but even more crucial—project.


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