Small Wars Journal

Autodefensas, Vigilantes and Self-Policing in Mexico: Civilian Dominance over Public Safety Policies?

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 12:20am

Autodefensas, Vigilantes and Self-Policing in Mexico: Civilian Dominance over Public Safety Policies?

Gary J. Hale

Mexican vigilantes say two charred bodies found on 8 March 2014 by police in the back of a pickup truck in the western state of Michoacán were members of a rival civil defense group.[[i]] By the following Tuesday, Mexican federal police arrested Hiplolito Mora, a prominent autodefensas group leader who had been accused by the victim’s family members as being responsible for their deaths.[[ii]]  Internecine fighting can only mean trouble for the future of the self-defense forces and for the government that provided them license to operate as an armed rural defense corps, in contravention to Mexican laws covering possession of firearms.[[iii]] Indeed, what started as a cooperative agreement between Michoacán based vigilantes groups and the federal government has become a tug-of-war for whether the Mexican military or the autodefensas will ultimately provide the level of security services needed to bring tranquility to the Pacific rim of Mexico.


The emergence of autodefensas (self-defense} or vigilante groups in Mexico has far-reaching international implications that may not be readily visible. A more atmospheric, or “30,000 foot” view of the security and threat landscape would reveal however, that the drug cartel conflicts that have spurred the formation of these vigilante groups could at any moment cause the first domino to fall in a very complex set of building blocks that comprise the China to North American commercial goods supply chain, of which Mexico finds itself squarely in the middle.

This potential supply chain failure would have subsequent adverse effects on trade, immigration and the economies of at least four trading partners, namely China, Mexico, the United States and Canada at the very least, if not other countries that are tangentially involved in hemispheric trade. What the government of Mexico does to address public safety concerns, not only in the Pacific states, but throughout the Republic, will also determine whether financial markets will be negatively affected or not and how the long-term outlook for investment in Mexico is evaluated by the international business community.

The rise and/or fall of the autodefensas phenomenon will also provide a test for the Mexican government that will reveal whether lay people will continue to take security matters into their own hands, for how long they operate as independent or autonomous security units and whether the Government will develop a more comprehensive solution to threats being faced by the individual Mexican citizens, their properties and the fruits of their labors. 

The Rise of Autodefensas Groups

The Enrique Peña Nieto administration took office in December 2012 and quickly announced plans to reduce crime and violence[[iv]], yet aside from the 2014 arrest of Chapo Guzman and other so-called Kingpins, little measurable or meaningful progress towards reducing crime and violence has been achieved in the ensuing 15 months that the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) party has held the office of the Presidency. This lack of success in increasing citizen safety has given rise to the appearance of autodefensas groups, or vigilantes who have begun to take matters into their own hands.

In mid-January 2014 Guardias Comunitarios (translated as a “Civil Guard” or “Civil Defense”), among the many names by which the autodefensas are being called, took up arms in the Pacific state of Michoacán, where the Sinaloa Cartel has been fighting a protracted battle to retain control of the lucrative maritime ports in that state. The decisions to organize and carry-out these functions were reportedly reached by consensus of township leadership figures, often meeting at public plazas and void of any government representation. The autodefensas directed their activities towards the removal of the notorious Caballeros Templarios gang, the latest iteration of the former La Familia Michoacana Drug Trafficking Organization, that has been operating in Michoacán and Guerrero for several years and that has been extorting or otherwise expropriating the properties of common folk to the point of public exasperation.

Those autodefensas have begun to perform most, if not all, of the public safety functions that are usually the responsibility of government police forces and their activities have included the establishment of access controls or checkpoints at the entrances to certain towns or villages, detentions, arrests and perfunctory trials, the use of corporal punishment and in some cases the penalty of forced labor by criminal suspects that have being detained in make-shift jails.

From personal observations since January 2014, interviews in early March with public safety officials[[v]] in Guerrero, Chihuahua and Mexico City, as well as public media reports since the beginning of the year, there are several distinct types of autodefensas or vigilante groups that have organized and are operating in Mexico:

Independent, Grass-Roots Autodefensas

Comprised mostly of frustrated citizens who have taken up arms to protect their own villages, crops or other personal and community assets. The rational for having formed into organized self-defense groups is evidenced by their original interest and focus on the prevention and punishment for the commission of local crimes such as extortion, theft, rapes, etc.

These citizens reasoned that they have been failed by their municipal, state and federal governments and as a result have become desperate to hold-on to what property and other possessions they have. As a result, most groups were ostensibly formed to provide insulation from oppressive forces such as Drug Trafficking Organizations that are extorting their towns, municipal districts and individual inhabitants. Their formation may have had the unintended positive consequence of creating leverage with the government, by forcing Mexico City to act, where they otherwise state or federal forces would not have come to the rescue.

Surrogates or Actual Drug Trafficking Organizations

The appearance in Michoacán of some well-armed groups, especially those carrying automatic weapons and long rifles, as well as the use of body armor and other defensive equipment, suggests connectivity to, or the presence of, armed criminal groups operating under the guise of grass roots, self-defense forces.

This assumption arises from the fact that criminal groups are the only logical source of such weaponry and equipment, aside from government forces and these well-armed groups have hardly emerged from the genre of farmers and growers that normally carry a pitch fork or machete as their most available weapon. In some towns, local citizens have denounced these groups as not being legitimate or true autodefensas vigilantes, but rather an extension of exiting criminal organizations.[[vi]]

The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) surfaced in 2011 and began referring to themselves as “Los Matazetas” or “Zeta killers.” Through the use of banners they stated that their goal was to assist Mexican military and police units eliminating the notorious Zetas organization, much like the autodefensas of the current day in Michoacán. While they were referred to as vigilantes in the media, the Calderón administration denied that vigilante groups were operating in Mexico and indicated that the Matazetas were simply another drug trafficking organization competing with the Zetas. The range of their activities in attacking Zetas on the Pacific side of Mexico as well as areas of the Gulf of Mexico did negate any claims that they were any sort of self-defense force providing protection to a specific municipality, town or state.

Insurgent Organizations, operating under the banner of an Autodefensas group …

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People's Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Liberación del Pueblo or FAR-LP) issued a communique in December 2013 declaring that “foreign petroleum firms that establish themselves in Mexico will be attacked.”[[vii]] The FAR-LP, a recently formed, self-declared, anti-government guerrilla group has incrementally begun to announce its plans and intentions, initially declaring war in October against the Government of Mexico and threatened foreign investors in the wake of President Enrique Peña-Nietos nascent energy reform initiative.

The FAR-LP also alleged that that the provision of Mexico's national resources to foreign investors is being continued by the Enrique Peña-Nieto administration as an extension of the PRI party plans to privatize Mexico's energy holdings currently monopolized by Petróleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, as initially envisioned by the Salinas de Gortari presidency.  The FAR-LP further warned that "any petroleum firm that intends on operating in Mexico shall be considered military targets" and further stated that "we shall make examples of them because we know how to defend our sovereignty."[[viii]]

The mountainous region of Guerrero, and apparent home base for the FAR-LP, is dominated by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) an organized crime and drug trafficking organization that has been affecting commercial transportation through their area of operations, charging cuota (tolls) on the highways and kidnapping truck drivers and others for ransom, all while clashing with other cartels trying to establish their own foothold in the Pacific Rim states. It is not known yet if the two groups (Knights Templar and FAR-LP) are associated, or if they will clash, however, both groups are ostensibly challenging the government, albeit with differing motivations, so there may be some future collusion among them.

Southern Mexico, specifically including Chiapas and Guerrero have been home to "grass-roots" revolutionary organizations for decades. This includes the more recent emergence of "auto-defensa" or self-defense/vigilante organizations. Other pro-revolutionary groups have generally operated and remained in southern Mexico, primarily in rural, jungle areas that are not easily reached by government forces.

The level of government response to the FAR-LP will likely be equal to the level of threat or violence that they engage in. Only time will tell if the FAR-LP will venture out of their safe-zone and conduct violent acts throughout the Mexican federation.  It is not known, but it is reasonable to expect, that the FAR-LP is the latest iteration of previous groups. This notion is based on similar language in their manifestos that alleges oppression and exploitation of the masses through government corruption.

Previous Mexican insurgency groups have reached into the hundreds of personnel and are organized in para-military structures with Unit Commanders ("Comandante") that may be platoon sized (30-50 personnel) or company-sized (at least 100 personnel).

Already, the FAR-LP has self-identified as having at least 3 leaders, or Commanders: Comandante Emilio, Comandante Camilo and Comandante Esperanza (this latter personage is ostensibly a female.) The assumption based on the existence of three Comandantes is that the FAR-LP currently consists of a minimum of 90 personnel, to a possible higher-number of 300 personnel.

The FAR-LP may not be interested in attacking or blowing-up pipelines, since this would cause a conflict with organized crime cartels, the latter of which are generating significant revenues through siphoning of petroleum products from PEMEX.

In 2011 for example, Mexican criminal organizations stole 55 percent more fuel from Mexican pipelines than in the previous year, as organized crime gangs sought more profits from stolen oil and gas, as reported by PEMEX in an annual report to its Congress. In 2011, the company lost just over 3.35 million barrels of fuel, up from more than 2.16 million barrels stolen in 2010.  Only time will tell if the FAR-LP attempt to destroy this national revenue lifeline.

The threats issued by the FAR-LP should be taken seriously and treated as a potentially viable and impending risk to life and property of any petroleum firms operating in Mexico, especially since one of their claims is that multi-nationals will be stealing national resources as a result of PEMEX privatization, a primary concern and complaint of the guerrilla group.

Private Security Groups, Operating as Quasi-official Police Forces …

The need for effective and dedicated security forces to protect corporate owners and other high-value personnel led to the establishment of a semi-autonomous police force under the informal banner of the Grupo Trece (“Group of 13”) of entrepreneurs in the state of Chihuahua.[[ix]]

In the state of Chihuahua, which had been plagued with rampant violence and crime in the last decade, over 31,000 business owners joined together in 2008 to pledge or provide a 5 percent self-imposed tax to establish a private group of security agents to perform not only physical security, but also to gather and analyze crime statistics in order to better understand and respond to violence in that state.

The analysis arm of the organization was formed under the auspices of the Observatorio Ciudadano de Prevención, Seguridad y Justicia de Chihuahua. The physical security arm is operated as the Grupo Trece and is comprised of state police officers that are seconded as body guards to various entrepreneurs.[[x]]

Under this arrangement, the Grupo Trece reimburses the state of Chihuahua for the services provided by the police officers, which includes the armed physical protection of private business owners.  The use of privately-funded state police officers allows the security force to operate with law enforcement authority while at the same time focusing their energies to protecting a specific set of clients.

On the wider scale the Observatorio performs intelligence collection and analysis of information that is used to influence public safety policy and to provide specific indications and warnings of threats and risks to its constituents.

In either case, these two organizations operate as independent and non-governmental entities that have successfully managed to obtain the cooperation of not only the state of Chihuahua, but on a broader scale, the unofficial concurrence or non-interference of the federal government. As recently as 20 June 2014, a team of Grupo Trece body guards, described as a private security group operating under the authority of the State Attorney General’s office, was attacked by a commando, or band of criminals in Chihuahua while carrying out their escort duties.

“Los Pinos” Response

Over the short-term, the Peña-Nieto Administration has decided to allow some of the autodefensas to continue to operate within a loose government charter and in some cases groups have been deputized, albeit informally, so that they are left alone to carry-out their self-defense activities either independently or alongside government forces, as being evidenced in Michoacán.

On Monday, 27 January 2014 an agreement was signed in the municipality of Tepalcatepec, which foresees allows for the autodefensas to be incorporated into either the Army, municipal police and/or the rural corps El Cuerpo de Policía Rural (los Rulales), known as the Grupos de Policías Comunitarios, a recognized legal framework authorized under the Mexican military.[xi]

In the state of Guerrero, one such group called the Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero (UPOEG) have organized to defend their towns, municipalities, natural resources and to ensure that utilities such electricity is equally distributed to the people in rural and mountainous regions.

The Ministry of the Interior, or Secretaría de Gobernación (SEGOB) noted that the measure is temporary and that the members of autodefensas who wished to become law enforcement officers would have be registered with the Ministry of Defense or Secretaría de Defensa (SEDENA).

To that end, SEGOB published eight points that outline that comprise the agreement signed between the government and the autodefensas:

  1. The autodefensas would become a recognized institution by joining the rural corps, and entity that would be a provisional organization in Michoacán. This required the autodefensas to register their members with SEDENA.
  2. If individual members of the autodefensa units wished, they could join their local municipal police provided that they met the requirements required by the law and that their candidacy was approved by their city council.
  3. Autodefensas groups were required to register their firearms with SEDENA. To this end, the Commissioner of the Comisión de Seguridad Nacional, or head of the Federal Police, would provide support for their communication, transportation and operations.
  4. Both parties agreed that the municipalities being subjected to violence and criminal acts would be audited to determine where public resources were being appropriately utilized.
  5. The government agreed to provide more of a police presence by rotating federal and state judicial police in the affected areas.
  6. The state of Michoacán agreed to maintain continuous communications with municipal authorities in the area to provide additional support.
  7. Anyone currently being charged with unlawful possession of weapons would be placed on probation until such time as they join a local, government-authorized force.
  8. Any municipal or state public safety employees would be prosecuted with the full weight of the law should they be found guilty of any criminal activity.

Thus Michoacán is, by default, serving as a proving ground for this experiment in self-policing that goes a step-beyond unarmed Community Policing and more towards the development of a force of armed Citizen Soldiers.

Some factions of the 20,000 strong autodefensas movement, while initially formed with good intentions, have apparently been infiltrated by the very nemesis they were trying to eradicate, namely the Caballero Templarios, as reported by the press.

Michoacán land owners have complained that conquering autodefensas cells have expropriated lands and orchards originally taken from them by Templarios, only to have a new set of thugs exact extortion payments from them, an otherwise already “taxed-out” and weary population. 

It is these types of abuses by the autodefensas groups that obligate the federal government to step-in and perform their public safety functions. Given the recognition of autodefensas groups by the government, the activities of these entities certainly do not exculpate the government from any abuses or violations of law that are otherwise being committed by those actors, either as independent citizens, under the loose supervision of government forces or as criminals operating under the false flag of an autodefensas group.

Over the longer term, the autodefensas may establish themselves are a more permanent citizen-soldier force that operates independently of the federal government. If that were to occur, their dissolution will be made more difficult as they become entrenched in the fabric of rural society, especially in the areas continually threatened by Drug Trafficking Organizations. Already, some autodefensas in Michoacán are pushing back on government authority and have refused to disband.[[xii]]

The best-case scenario that the federal government can hope for is that autodefensas play out and wither on the vine, especially if federal police and military forces establish a more numerous and perhaps more permanent presence in those two states. The eventual rise of the planned federal paramilitary Gendarmería may someday supplant the Army and Navy troops in the field however; the evolution of this new force appears to have stagnated and may not be as forthcoming as initially advertised.[[xiii]]


One of the many pressing issues that confronted President Enrique Peña Nieto when he took office was the unrelenting violence in most regions of the country. Peña Nieto stated that while he would fight organized crime with the same vigor as the outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderón, he believed that Calderón’s use of the military to combat organized crime helped perpetuate the violence in Mexico. “We can’t continue that way,” Peña Nieto said. “So we’re going to follow a strategy focused on three central crimes: murder, kidnapping and extortion. But make no mistake: it’s our duty to finish off the organized crime gangs, including drug traffickers.”

Mexico’s military was initially employed to combat the drug cartels’ growing influence during the tenure of President Vicente Fox shortly after he took office in 2000. Fox’s apparent reluctance to use regular Army troops was evident in the manner by which he deployed those soldiers. While the Army did confront criminals and lost many lives doing so, most of the units that were sent to problem areas were usually tasked with performing policing operations, that is, cleaning up what was left of the violence, and establishing a visible presence without being more aggressive than necessary.

When he took office in 2006, Calderón upped the ante by fielding military troops by the thousands, leading to the capture or death of more than half of Mexico’s “most wanted” by the end of 2011.

While the military was able to make some headway against these criminal organizations, the arrests had several unanticipated consequences. Since 2006, many cartel leadership figures have been arrested but numerous new criminal bands have emerged in their place, leading to further violence among the warring factions and among criminals and government forces. La Familia Michoacana and its most current iteration, Los Caballeros Templarios were among the many new factions that emerged. The violence, in turn, spilled over into the civilian sector and Mexico’s military, most often the Army, has been accused of committing civil rights violations.

It is also apparent that Fox and Calderón used the military as a federal “band-aid” to confront criminals while Mexico’s federal and state police forces were being improved, equipped and professionalized. To that end, since at least 2006, federal police ranks have swelled with new personnel that are more educated and, in turn, better paid than before. Unfortunately, the level of professionalism reached by the federal police has not yet been attained at the state level, even though there are continuing efforts toward that end.

In a simplified sense, Peña Nieto inherited federal and state police forces that are still short in numbers and lacking professionalism. As a result, it is unlikely that the military will be taken out of the fight immediately — or at least not until more police or other similar forces are put into service. While not a new proposal, the establishment of a paramilitary force was thought to serve as the middle ground between using quasi-military forces instead of civilian police forces to confront heavily armed criminal gangs.

Peña Nieto’s proposed paramilitary police force would be larger than the current federal police, numbering approximately 40,000 troops, would ostensibly increase intelligence gathering and patrols in conflict zones, and would be composed of soldiers who had already been tested during the Calderón administration. Had the president begun to staff and train a gendarmerie, it would take many years until it was effective enough to be fielded in the combat environment that now exists throughout Mexico. Recruiting, training and equipping such units would be costly, and chain-of-command structures would have to be developed, especially considering that the Constitution calls for those units to be subordinate to the state governors.

Given the levels of corruption that exist at the state and municipal levels, it is unlikely that the federal government would abdicate command-and-control of those new units to the individual states and would likely require that they be made directly subordinate to the secretary of defense.

New laws may also have to be enacted, considering that National Guard, or paramilitary units, may not have any law enforcement authority with which to investigate, conduct arrests or otherwise operate in a strictly nonmilitary manner. Properly trained, equipped and commanded, National Guard units in Mexico could serve to augment the offensive military forces that are needed to complement federal and state police forces, the latter of which are not authorized to utilize military-grade weaponry.

While the idea had merit, the establishment of National Guard or Gendarmería units in Mexico will likely be further delayed as inter-agency struggles continue to work against smooth implementation.

Policy Implications

The formation of autodefensas, particularly in the states where drug cartels have a vested financial interest in the importation of illegal drugs and pre-cursor chemicals, is a symptom of a larger ailment afflicting governance in Mexico. This is evident in the Pacific states of Michoacán and Guerrero and also holds true with regard to the exportation of drugs into the U.S., an important role of which is played out in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

The “failure” of Tamaulipas in the north[[xiv]] and that of Michoacán[[xv]] on the Pacific Coast, even if narrowly or anecdotally defined, are indicative of a disturbing trend that demonstrates the inability of individual states and the federal government to perform their obligatory, statutory and constitutional functions particularly the provision of public safety, writ large.

Rule of Law is fragile, at best, and non-existent at worst, in some Mexican states and has obviously deteriorated in states where autodefensas have emerged. One factor that contributes to this lack of success is the absence of a coherent security strategy being published and enacted by the Mexican government.[[xvi]]

The inability to provide lasting and consistent peace inexorably begins with the federal government, where exists a national-level bureaucracy that is intimately tied to, and drives the agendas for, state political machines.

Were it not for the links that exist between the federal and state political organizations, many governors would not be in office, leaders whose policies are tied to the national dogma of ignoring the realities of how dire the situation continues to be, despite the change in political parties since December 2012.

If effective state government performance was at the center of a governance scale, we would find that some states are operating at two distinct and polar, or opposite, ends of that same scale.

On one end of the scale, corruption and intimidation has led to the calcification of public safety performance by some states. Police forces in these states have been consumed by the “mafia,” co-opted as it were, and are relatively frozen in their ability to control, less fend-off, criminality.

On the other end of the scale some state governments are paralyzed by the body politic that dictates an adherence to the national agenda of claiming all is well, that the country is not on fire, while the house is burning.

Therein we find a simultaneous deference to federal intervention, specifically the military or federal police forces known as the Comisión Nacional de Seguridad (CNS), which are too little in number or logistically and financially unable to sustain long-term deployments in any particular region of the country, as evidenced by their inability to effectively eliminate drug cartel violence and other criminal activity by any significant measure.

The failure of the federal police (Policía Federal) to establish and maintain control of the “polvorin” or “powder keg” that Michoacán has become may have been among the many reasons that Manuel Mondragon, Commissioner of the CNS, stepped down on 18 March 2014.[[xvii]]

The combined state-federal further failure is continually validated by the frequent use of the military, particularly the Army and the Navy, to perform police functions normally conducted by municipal and state police departments, as well as the inability of the federal government to recruit, train, equip and field the hybrid paramilitary Gendarmería in the strength of numbers that are required to supplant the military forces and thereby remove them from the domestic policing roles in which they are mired.

If autodefensas are operated in coordination with well-established goals and objectives and if they are successfully incorporated into a thoughtful public safety bureaucracy, we may see a new form of self-policing practices emerge in Mexico. In the interim, autodefensas and similar citizens groups are writing the pages of Mexico’s security strategy, a self-help playbook being dictated by the masses and imposed on a bewildered and somewhat ineffective government.

Conversely, the perpetuation of autodefensas without such command, control and coordination could be the advent of a lawless society in certain states, or ever perhaps even regions of Mexico. The continued operation of autodefensas without formal training and government supervision may also give rise to violations of human rights and by association, implicate the federal government for being a co-sponsor to such crimes.

The government of Mexico has the moral imperative to protect its citizens within the confines of the Rule of Law, even if the autodefensas have the moral high ground when it comes to protecting and defending their families and communities.

Policy Recommendations

What happens in Mexico directly affects the U.S. and vice versa. Indeed, a poignant example of this symbiosis can be seen by the importance of the port of Lázaro Cárdenas in Michoacán, a port that had to be wrested away from criminal gangs by the Mexican Navy in November 2013[[xviii]] and the same state where much of the autodefensas activity is occurring. The port is an essential component of the Chinese-North American commercial product supply-chain and an economic life-line into the Americas that, if interrupted, could create a domino effect on multitudes of business concerns not only the U.S. and Canada, but in the region at large.

This makes the transportation corridor that begins at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas and links with key distribution centers in Laredo, Houston, Chicago and Kansas City of significant interest to the U.S.  In the other direction, iron ore, zinc and other minerals are exported from Mexico to China and elsewhere in Asia via Lázaro Cárdenas, demonstrating the international importance of this deep-water port.

This points to the need for Mexico to see Mexican criminality as not only an internal threat, but as threat that extends externally, in that taxation or “cuotas” charged by traffickers, or other methods of intimidation, are directly or indirectly affecting multinational corporations that are otherwise contributing to the Mexico’s economic success.

For example, the Caballeros Templarios are reportedly generating more income from extortion of iron ore mines than from drug trafficking activities, a disturbing trend that expands cartel criminality and provides more avenues for corrupting officials in many divisions of government beyond public safety forces.[[xix]]

Thus, if criminality cannot be reigned-in at Michoacán there could well be a financial hiccup worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or a bottleneck of trade that could cause the loss of billions of dollars in multinational revenues. What happens in Michoacán and beyond could significantly alter the balance of trade between the China and the United Sates, not to mention the negative effect on the number of jobs that the port and intermodal businesses brings to Mexico.

In turn, when public safety is assured and trade occurs uninterrupted, this leads to increased employment in Mexico and those jobs contribute to less illegal immigration to the north, and that leads to a reduced amount of stress that is placed on social services administered by the federal and state governments on the U.S. side of the Mexico border.

The need for a Sino-Mexico-America-Canada Security Cooperation Pact should be considered as an essential element of the continued viability of the NAFTA Treaty. Each of those four countries and the participating commercial entities should be considered as equal partners, with equal concerns and equal responsibilities with regards to the security of the transportation corridor that runs through Mexico. Never mind borders, the likes of which are essentially under continuous and close scrutiny, and instead the Pact Consortium should focus on developing a cooperative security agreement that protects the commercial supply-chain from being weakened or disrupted.

The Pact Consortium could start with funding the development of a security package that includes the initiation of specified intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities that are responsive to the threat scenarios throughout the supply chain. Countering the threat would require the development of a Quick Reaction Force that would be responsible for protecting the individual elements, such as vessels, trains and trucks, of the intermodal conveyances that are used to move goods along those routes. Those forces could be deployed at key junctures along the supply chain to enable a rapid response to any thefts, blockades or other interruptions that would mitigate and extinguish the threat.

Funded by the pact Consortium but operated by Mexican civilian security units, the QRF could be operated much like the autodefensas and be placed under the supervision of the military or the federal police. This would provide the both entities a needed relief by relieving the pressure on its already overtaxes resources yet still allow the Army to retain its oversight role of any commercially operated security forces.

The Audacity of Presidents

On a related note, inasmuch as Mexico has a vested interest in the fate of their countrymen residing in the U.S., under whatever status, and their eventual repatriation to Mexico under involuntary conditions, the so-called forced deportations of Mexican citizens, so then does the U.S. have a vested interest in the violence that plagues Mexico and threatens a key economic lifeline that begins at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas.

President Peña Nieto recently complained that the United States is deporting too many Mexican citizens back to Mexico and President Obama responded that deportations of illegal immigrants are a matter that is out of his hands. 

Obama explained that the executive branch agencies, such as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is required, by law, to execute the laws passed by the U.S. Congress, and those responsibilities include the repatriation of illegal immigrants, regardless of their country of origin.

However, no sooner than Obama stated that immigration deportations were required by law did he order on 13 March 2014 a review of immigration enforcement policies to ensure that such removals were conducted more humanely, in an effort to slow the number of repatriations being conducted by DHS.[[xx]]  Among the first such changes would be to slow or stop deportations of foreigners who have no criminal convictions other than immigration violations.[[xxi]]  Obama’s selective enforcement of immigration law has so angered some in government that they are suing the president for alleged abuse of power.

On 12 March 2014 lawmakers strenuously blasted the Obama administration Wednesday for failing to enforce several federal laws including the health care reform, immigration policy as it stands, and other laws.[[xxii]]

Using this deportation issue as an example, it is important to take note of the fact that Peña Nieto’s statement is, in effect, a request for the U.S. president to selectively enforce U.S. law, to the benefit of his Mexican countrymen. The practice of selective enforcement of the law, whether it related to an immigration issue, or the possession of weapons specifically restricted for the use of military authorities, as in the case of the Mexican government allowing the autodefensas to possess weapons, is precisely the sort of practice that weakens Rule of Law, in any country.

To that end, Congress may consider establishing linkage between Immigration Reform in the U.S. and the development by the government of Mexico of substantive, well-defined, public safety reforms in key logistical areas like Michoacán and Mexico’s northern Border States.

Further, in order for both nations to effectively continue the success of the 20-years old North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), they have to work more closely together in these areas of common interest, by recognizing that public safety in Mexico directly affects prosperity in at least four nations, including China, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. In 2010 for example Mexico was the third largest supplier of goods imported to the U.S. with receipts totaling $229.7 billion dollars.[[xxiii]]

What happens in Michoacán and how the government of Mexico handles the issue of autodefensas can arguably become a national security issue for the U.S. and an economic issue for the U.S. and other countries involved in the Agreement.

The success of NAFTA is a boon for North America and is worth protecting. To that end, the U.S. Congress may also wish to consider amending the NAFTA Treaty to require specific public safety assurances by Mexico that critical ports and supply chains will be protected and thereby immunized from disruption by criminal elements.


The rise of autodefensas groups emerged as the cure to a local security problem in Mexico’s Michoacán, but the ramifications of self-determination through the formation of citizen-soldier security forces have uncovered a host of issues that point to the failure of the Mexican government to maintain good and lasting public order. On any given day, it is difficult to assess whether the criminals or the government has the upper-hand in determining the extent of freedoms that Mexican people may enjoy.

This public safety strategy failure, as evidenced by citizens groups having to fend for themselves, is only one of several security and governance issues that is of serious concern and may be among several key determinants in whether and how immigration reform, trade and other public policy is shaped and defined in the U.S.

End Notes

[1] Damien Cave, “Opponent of Mexico’s Cartels Is Detained in Vigilantes’ Deaths,” New York Times, 13 March 2014;

[[ii]] ‘Self-defence leader arrested for murder’” El Universal, 11March 2014;

[[iii]] ‘'Self-Defense' Groups in Michoacán Sign Agreement with Mexican Government to Institutionalize,” Latinos Post, 30 January 2014.án-sign-an-agreement-with-the-mexican-government-to-institutionalize.htm.

[[iv]] “Primer Informe de Gobierno” (First State of the Union Address), President Enrique Peña Nieto; 02 September 2013,

[[v]] The officials are a former federal police officer working for the State of Guerrero and a current state public safety official in Mexico City, both of who requested anonymity in order to safeguard their employment.

[[vi]] Rival autodefensas group suspected to have been infiltrated by the Caballeros Templarios; Damien Cave, “Opponent of Mexico’s Cartels is Detained in Vigilantes’ Deaths.”

[[vii]] Dolores Casas, “Empresas Que Exploten PEMEX Serán Objetivo Militar: FAR-LP,” Origen, 31 December 2013,

[[viii]] Ibid, note 7.

[[ix]] Carlos Coria Rivas, “Empresarios en Chihuahua pagan observatorio anticrimen,” 01 April 2013,

[[x]] Personal interview with José Antonio Enríquez Tamez, director of the Observatorio Ciudadano de Chihuahua, 19 September 2013.

[[xi]] Jorge Calvillo, “'Self-Defense' Groups in Michoacán Sign Agreement With Mexican Government to Institutionalize,” 30 January 2014,án-sign-an-agreement-with-the-mexican-government-to-institutionalize.htm.

[[xii]] “Vigilantes say Mexico government persecuting them; Associated Press,} 17 March 2014,

[[xiii]] Gary J. Hale, “Paramilitary power in Mexico: A strategy shift in Mexico’s drug war,” Baker Blog, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, 25 July 2012;

[[xiv]] Gary J. Hale, “A "Failed State" In Mexico: Tamaulipas Declares Itself Ungovernable,” Research Paper, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, 26 July 2011,

[[xv]] “Michoacán: Mexico's failed state?” BBC News, 17 January 2104;

[[xvi]] Ibid, note 3; Section 1.1 “Promover y fortalecer la gobernabilidad democrática” (Promote and Strengthen Democratic Governability)

[[xvii]]  “Mexico's national security commissioner resigns,” Reuters, 17 March 2014;

[[xviii]] Natalie Southwick, “Can Mexico Break Knights Templar's Hold on Michoacán Port?” Insight Crime, 05 November 2013,

[[xix]] “Mexico drug cartel makes more dealing iron ore,” Associated Press, 17 March 2014,

[[xx]]  “Readout of the President's Meeting with Congressional Hispanic Caucus Leadership,” 13 March 2014, The White House;

[[xxi]] Brian Bennett, “Homeland Security considering two major changes to ease deportations,” Los Angeles Times, 14 March 2014,,0,3512651.story#ixzz2wXJIKCuT.

[[xxii]] Ed O’Keefe, “House passes bill making it easier for Congress to sue the president,” 12 March 2014, Washington Post,

[[xxiii]] North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Office of the United States Trade Representative,


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Gary J. Hale is a law enforcement and intelligence professional who retired from the federal government in 2010 after a 37-year career with various intelligence community and federal law enforcement agencies. His last assignment was as the Chief of Intelligence in the Houston Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Hale also served with the Army Security Agency from 1972-1978 throughout Europe. He joined the DEA in 1979 while serving as a Task Force Agent and Narcotics Officer detached from the Laredo, Texas Police Department where he served from 1978-1979.  While at DEA he served at the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), La Paz, Bolivia, Bogotá, Colombia, New Orleans, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Hale was also assigned as the DEA intelligence chief at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City where he participated in the hunt for Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies.” In 2011 and 2012, he served as the Law Enforcement-Intelligence Program Coordinator for the Mérida Initiative at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.  Hale has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science (Franklin Pierce University), a Master’s Degree in Judicial Policy (Universidad de Almería, España), and is an alumnus of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Leadership. In 2010, Hale was appointed as a Drug Policy Fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.



Mon, 07/14/2014 - 11:32am


Thanks for the article. The following excerpt struck me as especially compelling:

"Their formation may have had the unintended positive consequence of creating leverage with the government, by forcing Mexico City to act, where otherwise state or federal forces would not have come to the rescue."

I agree that the formation of the autodefensas provides Mexicans oppressed by the DTOs with some degree of leverage. Where their objectives align with the Nieto administration's--particularly with respect to violence reduction--I'd also suggest that they provide the government with a significant opportunity for "counter-leverage." Many of the militias lack the kind of formal training and equipping that could render them most effective in countering the DTOs (and thus most effective in meeting their own objectives). If properly vetted and incentivized, the self-defense militias could prove to be a significant boon to security when supplemented with Federal resources through clearly-defined partnerships that concurrently allow the government to provide a measure of oversight (and limited control). I briefly discuss this issue in a recent post for the blog Foreign Intrigue here:…

As you point out, the autodefensas are vulnerable to infiltration by the DTOs, and in some cases abuse their de facto authority. Combined with the very real possibility that the militias could establish local monopolies over long-term security and political infrastructure (by not disbanding), I think this necessitates some kind of government response. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on whether a more robust partnership with well-vetted autodefensas is possible, if that is in fact a component of a solution that incorporates best practices from other historical contexts exhibiting similar problems.