The “Hidden” Power of Illegally Armed Groups in Latin America: Mexico a Case Study
Around the world, armed citizens have grown desperate due to the increase of violent acts performed by criminal organizations. Armed resistance groups have sprung up in places where formal security forces are absent or inadequate, often with the approval and support of governments. Despite their noble intentions, these armed groups potentially pose a challenge to the authority and legitimacy of the state.
In some cases where armed groups have operated without oversight, they have killed wantonly, displaced thousands from their lands, or themselves taken up criminal activities. Latin America has been bruised by experiences where quasi-military forces proclaim themselves as defenders of society against attacks from criminal organizations and guards of public security. The replacement of power and security responsibilities from the state to armed civilians signals an absence of the state or inconsistence in its actions in combatting criminal organizations. In such a volatile environment, not government, but rather illegally armed groups control “security” in the states maintaining their hidden power[i]. Currently, many of these Latin American warlords are leaders of criminal groups who are effectively organized as entrepreneurs, producers and illicit traffickers and, in many cases, they lead their illegally armed squads to perform private violence for their own economic goals.
The 20th century history of Latin America was remarkable due to the emergence of socialist insurgent groups. It was during when many governments sought fast and efficient solutions: in other words to eliminate these socialist insurgent groups. Their “dirty” job was to exterminate the uncomfortable groups who took up arms with political goals. The Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad, CIACS) in Guatemala, Vladimir Montesinos’ Secret Service of Intelligence in Peru, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) in Colombia or the “Red Masks” and “Peace and Justice” in Mexico were the paramilitary agents in charge of combatting insurgent groups. All of these quasi-military forces have been portrayed as death squads. They performed a function that the armed forces could not do. These paramilitary groups were frequently comprised of ex-soldiers who acted in the shadow of these governments.
In the 21st century, the insecurity problems not only persist, but have in effect deepened. Quasi-military forces are not supported by democratic governments to do the “dirty” job. Also, their armed activities are not politically motivated, but instead motivated by economic goals. A willingness to defend citizens has become a root cause for the emergence of two different types of armed parties. Thus, security control has been relocated, on one side, to self-defense forces, and, on the other side, to criminal organizations. Interestingly, both illegally armed forces proclaim themselves as protectors of vulnerable community residents against the rival armed group mostly because the state authority is unable to provide security on the streets—a basic assurance that governments are obligated to provide their citizens.
Hidden Power of the Mexican Extralegal Forces
Mexico effectively underwent a process of Balkanization committed by illegally armed groups. On the one hand, drug cartels fought for control over the territory. On the other hand, self-defense groups protected their territory against organized crime. Despite the fact that the Mexican government used its armed forces to try and contain the rampant violence and fight organized crime, its actions resulted not only in an inefficient control of the insecurity situation, but even deepened the problem: a spread of violence provoked by the legally armed groups’ activities. Although the government claims to have control over the insecurity taking place on the streets, the number of murders, extortions, kidnappings and other sophisticated criminal attacks on people and their property has increased exponentially, terrifying people. As a result, the authority and law of the state has completely disappeared.
Therefore, the control of security has shifted from the state authority to the newly emerged illegally armed groups that assure residents that they in fact are the real guardians of order and peace on the streets. According to Francisco López Bárcenas, this phenomenon is “an extreme expression of the defense of their territories and communities against the organized crime, caciques and mega projects”[ii]. Since 2013, self-defense forces have been emerging as a response to the anarchy and insecurity. Illegally armed groups proclaim themselves as protectors of residents of localities against organized crime activities. Frequently, these armed groups do not represent a local community government, nor do they receive money for their services. Rather, they are people chosen to conduct violence against the illicit traffickers. Such armed units are very difficult to sustain due to inadequate resources. Where they are not defeated by the government, they often end up cooperating with other armed groups and getting drawn into conflict. For example, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have morphed into a paramilitary group.
The other type of illegally armed groups and self-proclaimed “protectors” of the vulnerable groups of society are the new generation of criminal organizations with a social goal: “defense”. They frequently act under the approbation and support of society. Two of the Mexican States, Michoacán, known as the “Hot Land” (Tierra Caliente), and Jalisco became incubators and bastions for two fighting drug cartels: “the Knights Templar” (Los Caballeros Templarios, KT) and the “Jalisco New Generation Cartel” (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). The Michoacán region is famous not only for its cultivation of avocados, limes, and melons, but also for the presence of methamphetamine laboratories. All of these resources have attracted criminal organizations to occupy these regions and extort their residents and farmers.
The first occupying group is a relatively new criminal organization composed of remnants of the disbanded “Michoacán Family” (La Familia Michoacana, MF) drug cartel. This group was formed in 2011. The leader of the “Michoacán Family,” Nazarío Moreno González, known as “the Craziest” (El Más Loco) was killed in March 2014. In this scenario other criminal organizations with a similar social background emerged. In 2009, the “the Jalisco New Generation Cartel” (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG) was formed by three men: Nemesio Oseguera Ramos (known as El Mencho), Erick Valencia (known as El 85) and Martín Arzola Ortega (known as El 53). One year later, in 2010, these self-declared defenders of Jalisco announced that they were going to clear the whole country of all criminal groups. However, the CJNG focused more on eliminating “the Zetas” drug cartel. Therefore, the group adopted a second name; “the Zetas’ Killers” (Los Matazetas) which expresses their social mission. Members of this criminal organization dress in black, wear ski-masks and are heavy armed. Currently, apart from the KT and “the Resistance” (La Resistencia) cartel, “the Zetas” is the CJNG’s main target. The CJNG operates in Nayarit, Colima, Veracruz, Guadalajara, Jalisco and Michoacán. Both organizations maintain quasi-religious backgrounds. The KT’s motto is “divine justice,” an ideal for which they are ready to die. Old religious movements were supported by an idea about bringing help and protection to fellow man. The philosophies of “the New Jerusalem”, also known as “the New Church[iii]” and “the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Salomon[iv]” inspire the KT and the MF. In addition, the KT calls themselves a “brotherhood” and acts according to its own moral code. The CJNG maintains its deeply nationalistic background.
In addition, both the KT and the CJNG maintain strong communications and relations with the public and government to demonstrate their presence and control of security in Mexican states. The video, phone messages, and narcomantas (notices on material or paper left by criminals in public places or victims’ corps) are ways by which these armed groups send their communications to local authorities, the government or state residents. Current criminal organizations benefit from technological and information advances not only in their construction of criminal networks, but also in their illicit activities, such as virtual kidnappings or money laundering.
During their initial formation stage, criminal groups looked for social support, essentially a base in their community. All over the world, vigilantes complain that the official legal system has failed to satisfy their thirst for order, as well as that a narrow focus on the law itself—whether ‘realist‘ or ‘idealist’— does not seem to provide security to citizens. According to Richard Maxwell Brown, the vigilance committee has higher respect for itself than for ill administrated law[v]. They offer their services as vigilantes of the community against the invasion of other criminal gangs. But, with time, they gradually take control over the locality creating terror among the residents. This community policy morphed into criminal groups taking advantage of the vigilantism to impose exactly the same “order” rules in the “plaza”[vi] as their criminal adversary. Therefore, both types of illegally armed forces that have emerged seem to demonstrate these features.
Nevertheless, a similar criminal pattern has appeared in the other “innocently” proclaimed self-defense forces. These equally extralegal armed parties emerged in March 2012 as a response to the KT criminal activities as well as for control of the State of Michoacán. These self-defense farmers, whose unique economic support derives from lime and avocado cultivation, became armed with sophisticated and powerful weapons. The details behind the purchase of these weapons by the poor farmers are officially unknown or perhaps have been voluntary silenced by authorities. On January 27 2014, Mexico’s Interior Department stated that: “the self-defense groups will become institutionalized and integrated to the Rural Defense Corps[vii]”. Michoacán community representatives of self-defense corps, such as Churumuco of Morelos, Nueva Italia of Ruíz, La Huacana, Parácuaro, Tancítaro, Cualcomán of Vázquez Pallares, Aquila y Coahuayana of Hidalgo signed an agreement with municipal and federal authorities. The document states that voluntarily armed people have to act with a strong collaboration with municipal authority and must register themselves and the weapons in their possession. Presently, 600 members of the self-defense forces have registered their names, mailing address and weapons.
The incorporation of people in arms (militia) into rural or community police expounds the long rural defense tradition that dates back to 16th Century Mexican indigenous villages. This indigenous tradition of defense of the territory by armed residents (community police) transformed, under specific circumstances, into the self-defense squads phenomenon. Additionally, vigilante group members can also join the municipal police and receive help in logistics and transportation from this entity. Other poor Mexican regions, not always of an indigenous background, have seen the formation of self-defense units in states such as Guerrero and Michoacán. However, the emergence of a newly armed group not linked to self-defense guards in the Yurécauro municipality[viii] could be evidence of how criminal organizations extend their spider’s web to arm the residents of the community to eventually draw them into the organization.
In January 2014, Rubén Oseguera González (known as “El Menchito”), the second-in-command of the CJNG cartel and the son of Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, the organization’s leader, was arrested. Although the cartel was substantially weakened, the factual power and “security” control still belonged to the illegally armed groups, and not to the authorities. The perfectly organized underworld absorbed the vulnerable social groups using the poor self-protecting farmers who involuntarily worked for them. The Mexican avocado is covered with blood, as it happened with the African diamonds and the Peruvian gold, before. Moreover, organized crime has extended its activities to extort mining companies that were obligated to pay the militia[ix] for their protection services. Currently, not only synthetic or natural illegal drugs, but also food and natural resources have become attractive products for the illicit market. In this disastrous situation where the underworld owns most of the essential natural goods and economic revenue streams for a major part of the population, while the government is unable to provide sufficient security means for residents self-protection is a top priority. This combination of factors is why the self-defense forces became so popular and powerful in the regions where these goods exist. Their previously hidden power has effectively undergone a transformation into an actual authority in combatting the local criminal organizations.
Legality of the Illegally Armed Forces
Although Chapter I, article 17 of Mexico's Constitution “categorically establishes that no one can carry out justice for themselves nor use violence to reclaim their rights”[x], the institutionalization of illegal possession, carry and use of weapons has become a fact. Indeed, this is evidence that the judicial power does not work according to a set of rule of law; a lack of transparency, inadequate punishment for crimes, and corruption are only some the examples of failures of judicial power. However, what the Mexican government has done is to strengthen its legal executive branch— the inefficient security guards (the police)— restore the armed forces, and, even institutionalize and legalize the militia as the “able” and “efficient” executive power to contain violence and control situations in this volatile region. A concession to civilians to carry and use weapons and act as the “legal” guards responsible for their own security cannot be acceptable in light of constitutional law where according to its text the government possesses unique executive and judiciary power. This contradictory situation where the government ignores its prior constitutional decisions which were previously ratified proves the state’s current lawlessness.
The institutionalization and legalization of armed civil activities with self-defense goals intends not only to strengthen their hidden power, but also to get them out from the shadows and create an image of local “heroes” ready to sacrifice their lives for the establishment of order and peace on the streets. However, the vigilantes’ perception of crime and abuse is profoundly individualized, and consequently, they carry out justice for themselves through revenge and not through legitimate institutions.
In Latin America, the militarization of civil society has a long tradition, starting with the wars for independence through the revolutionary movements (e.g. the Mexican Revolutions in 1910) and insurgencies in Peru, Guatemala and Colombia, where the quasi-military forces were projected to contain the leftwing movements of the 60s and 70s, and concluding with the current war against criminal organizations. The armed activities of all of these self-defense parties, except the Michoacán forces have a political background. In Mexico, by contrast, the militia emerged in the context of rampant violence inflicted by the criminal organizations motivated to control and influence the most economically attractive zones of the Mexican Republic.
From 2013, the self-defense forces rose in number and advanced in their hierarchical military structure (divided into commands), training and equipment (from the modest T-shirts and old hunting rifles, shotguns, sticks and machetes to the bullet-proof vests and high caliber firearms like AK-47s). Moreover, they started to receive regular payments for their vigilante services[xi], as the military or even mercenaries receive. Initially, their engagement in providing security was not economically motivated. The emergence and subsequent advanced progression and development of militia squads suggest the financial support received for their services as well as society’s approbation. According to the militia’s members, their armed activities are financed by donations from their compatriots who live in the United States. They claim that the firearms in their possession come from their own confiscation of drug cartels. In spite of the militia’s claims, the origin of sophisticated weapons that are currently in their possession, signals a significant morphing of these militarized groups from poorly armed farmers into quasi-military forces with heavy weapons, and can also prove their linkage to the other rival criminal organizations. Indeed, the General Attorney of the Mexican Republic Jesús Murillo Karam has assured that he possesses evidence of the CJNG’s collaboration with the vigilantes.
The fast transformation of poorly armed avocado farmers into well organized and heavily equipped quasi-military entities while being recognized by the state, points out an alarming situation occurring in this region, where the use of force is granted to unprofessional armed civilians. A thorough control over the armed and self-proclaimed “guards” of public security, in spite of the registration of their names and weapons is nearly impossible. Furthermore, the public support that they enjoy could provoke a spread of violence. Although initially “hidden,” the power of the extralegal forces has morphed into an actual domination and control over the Mexican State. As a result, a new criminal organization now exists to perform their illicit modus operandi. Moreover, the problem also deepens because the self-defense forces and criminal organizations in their initial stages act under the vigilantism umbrella.
Despite the fact that the newly emerged armed Mexican groups were motivated by their self-defense goals and not by illicit activities, it is nonetheless an alarming situation. Their increased and institutionalized power could become a real threat not only to the residents that they presume to protect, but also to the government that might be unable to control such unprofessional forces equipped with heavy weapons, whose power has been strengthened by the government’s decision regarding its legality. Although these armed groups claim that they will return to their previous farm obligations, too much power given to the armed residents and a “blind” trust in their “good wills” can create even further security instability and impair the authority of the government’s responsibility for public security. There is a relatively low probability that these institutionalized and legalized armed civilians will eventually allow themselves to be peacefully disarmed and voluntarily return to their previous job obligations that they were forced to leave in order to defend themselves.
Unfortunately, there appears to be an evolution of armed civilian activities from self-proclaimed forces to the drug cartels (e.g. the MF, in its initial stage) which ultimately result in a profoundly different scenario. If the militia does not morph into paramilitary groups or other illicit organizations, as a part of the Rural Defense Corps, they would assume the role of actual and legal guards of law and carry out justice for themselves, removing the state from its right to implement the force as a unique judge.[xii]
Apart from monitoring, one of the solutions for Mexico is to look for options to coordinate both formal and informal security forces to keep communities safe while still allowing for justice, accountability, and the rule of law. Apart from this, it is suggested that the government place strong emphasis on the economic development of communities to keep the self-defense groups away from their possible engagement in mercenary activities after the violence subsides and the situation is stabilized.
Legal and Illegal Armed Groups in Mexico
Source: The Author’s Elaboration.
[i] The term “hidden power” or “shadow power” defines a form of power which is unofficial and wielded by those behind an institution or an authority, e.g. Vladimir Montesios’ Secret Service in Peru.
[iii] In 18th Century Sweden a new religious movement emerged with a doctrine that declared a new revelation of Jesus Christ as the one God of heaven and Earth.
[iv] The Christian military order endorsed by the Catholic Church around 1129. Its members fought in the Crusades and protected Christian pilgrims against bandit attacks. This military order was supported by kings and was maintained by donations and infrastructure management.
[v] Brown, Richard, M., Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, Oxford University Press, 1975: 8.
[vi] Territory dominated by an organized crime.
[vii] “Mexico Legalizes Vigilantes, Nabs Cartel Leader”, The New York Times (January 27, 2014). Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/01/27/world/americas/ap-lt-mexico-k....
[ix] “Autodefensas: varias minas de Michoacán son o fueron explotadas por los templarios”, La Jornada (February 4, 2014). Available at: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/02/02/politica/008n1pol
[xi] Muédano, M. “Autodefensas se organizan al ‘estilo militar’”, El Universal (January 3, 2014). Available at: http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/autodefensas-se-organizan-al-8216estilo-militar-8217-212789.html.
[xii] Waltz, K., Man, the State, and War: Theoretical Analysis, Columbia University Press, New York City, 1959: 160.