Murders, disappearances ... justice?: a 2010 protest against drug-cartel violence against journalists in Mexico. Flickr / John S and James L Knight. Some rights reserved.
Is the government losing its authority? All around the world, little by little, the state has been transferring security functions to private firms, which have presented themselves as experts providing specialised services in intelligence, training and analysis. In Mexico, with cartel violence and corruption running rampant, security has come to be conceived as best handled by professionals outside the authorities, with bodyguards ensuring the safety of their patrons.
With only one police officer for every 996 Mexicans, private security has boomed. Since 2008 the industry has been growing by a steady 20 per cent per year and by 2012 there were more than 8,000 firms. Over three quarters operate irregularly or even illegally, to avoid taxes or having to pay for permits and certificates. They profit by exploiting the deteriorating situation rather than providing a reliable service. They have filled their ranks with ex-cops and people with little education, who find in this industry a job opportunity with few requirements.
Industries and the affluent have turned to private security for armoured cars and escorts, most of them armed, patrolling neighbourhoods. For an ever increasing portion of the population, private security has become the only security. But what for those who can’t afford it?
The people of Michoacan, in the south west of Mexico, have experienced over a decade of increasing violence from the cartel that controls the region, the Knights Templar. Suffering assault, extortion, kidnapping and rape by cartel members—who operate with near impunity—civilians have organised themselves in grupos de autodefensas (self-defence groups). Unlike a revolutionary movement, these have no ideological agenda, no plans to replace the government.
The geography allows the cultivation of drugs and the maintenance of meth labs—and facilitates the disposal of bodies.
Such vigilante groups do not enjoy the legitimacy private security has acquired: they have arisen from extreme necessity. Paradoxically, the Knights Templar themselves emerged in just this way.
The government has sought to disarm the self-defence group in Michoacan by mounting a large army operation. This has led to accusations that it is merely protecting the Knights Templar or its own image of legitimacy and authority—not public safety. The vigilantes say they would be happy to disarm, if the government captures or kills key figures among the Knights Templar. Indeed, they have furnished the names and aliases of alleged leaders, whom they claim are operating in plain sight.
Michoacan is of strategic value to any cartel, thanks in particular to its coastline and harsh terrain. The geography allows the cultivation of drugs and the maintenance of meth labs—and facilitates the disposal of bodies.
The self-defence groups claims that they are being sponsored by local businessmen and the general public, and that their arms come from cartel members whom they have killed. Yet some officials, and even the Knights Templar themselves, suspect that competing cartels may be providing the high-calibre weapons.
These vigilante groups are not only growing but have started to spread to other states, leading the government to attempt their “regularisation”, giving them the legitimacy they were lacking. This has divided experts and the public alike—with some claiming that it is a quick solution which, like many such strategies, may lead to long-term complications much more difficult to resolve.
Arguably, the government is trapped between continuing the ineffectual “war on drugs”, which would allow the cartels to carry out their activities and violence with the near impunity they have enjoyed, or risking unprofessional paramilitary groups abusing authority under the mantle of acquired legitimacy. Those against the legalisation of the self-defence groups cite Peru, Colombia and Guatemala as countries that adopted similar strategies—resulting in paramilitary groups committing crimes without repercussions or turning into the very insurgency groups they were combating.
The fact remains that as long as violence runs rampant in Mexico, and elsewhere, if the state is unable to provide security someone else will fill the vacuum—most likely with less accountability and much more ruthlessness.