Autodefensas: the solution to Mexico's drug problem?

Illegal drug trafficking is deeply embedded in Mexico. Collusion between the state and ‘self-defence’ groups is not, however, the answer to it.

Jose Angel Garcia
28 April 2014
Vigilantes in Michoacan

Easy to romanticise: autodefensas in Michoacan. Flickr / Pedro. Some rights reserved.There is no foreseeable end to the conflict between the Mexican state and organised crime, in the shape of the drug traffickers. Indeed its evolution has brought a third party on to the stage—armed autodefensas.

It is frequently argued that the conflict emerged as a result of the radical, militarised response by the former president, Felipe Calderon, to the rising economic and socio-political power of the traffickers. A power that was—and is—challenging the state’s monopoly of the use of force, disturbing local, national and even transnational transactions on commodities like avocado and decomposing the country’s atrophied social fabric.

Yet, as has been extensively documented, drug trafficking and the involvement in it of farmers and entrepreneurs has a long history. What is relatively new is that in 2000, with the defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after seven decades of rule, a political system based on unwritten laws and allegiances between politicians and traffickers—among other actors—became obsolete. A temporary power vacuum then emerged and democratic dreams of positive change vanished, as insecurity, crime and violence rose.

They can thus be considered paramilitary organisationsalthough this does not mean they lack any appeal.

Take Michoacan, a Mexican state where, it has been rather romantically argued, citizens have organised in autodefensas to “free the communities from the power of organised crime”. Although the idea of a “local liberation” movement to dislodge the traffickers has attractions, the injection of more armed groups—even the exhortation to “keep an armed fight while developing an institutional democratisation from below”—seems an unfeasible, even dangerous, option.

Democratised and legal vigilantes?

While the autodefensas appear independent of any trafficking group or indeed political organisation, they are undeniably an illegal—even if in some eyes legitimate—movement. Originally lacking state recognition, they have nevertheless used guns reserved for the exclusive use of the armed forces, blocking roads among other actions.

They can thus be considered paramilitary organisationsalthough this does not mean they lack any appeal. With the federal security corporations devouring more than £315m per annum but achieving minimal results in their battle against trafficking and its associated violence, many would argue that it was necessary to do something “to shake off the yoke of the drug lords”.

Nonetheless, the autodefensas were initially constituted as extra-legal groups aiming to taking the law into their own hands, substituting for the state in public security—at the very least. There was thus no way the movement could be supported through formal political or legal channels, as in the romantic perspective the Mexican left were urged so to do.

Instrumentally, recent joint work between the security forces and the autodefensas has achieved short-term results. But this can only compromise the legitimacy of the state on the moral plane and in the long run. Consequently, and paradoxically, the more society looks to and supports these still not fully regulated actors, violence will continue increasing at the same time as confidence in public authority, civil rights and the rule of law—all essential to a democratic society—are seriously undermined.

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