Blood and Justice: Crisis in Michoacàn

Posted By John Miller, May 10, 2015

In 2011, the Knights Templar rose to be one of the strongest cartels in Mexico. Situated in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s western states, the Knights Templar maintained its power thanks to strongman Servando Gomez. Gomez, known as “La Tuta,” was the nation’s most wanted cartel leader until his arrest last month.[1] Federal police arrested Gomez and paraded him around Mexico City in an attempt to demonstrate the government’s strength and control over the states.[2] The cameras and journalists, however, only showed one side of the story. In Michoacán, vigilante groups, the self-proclaimed fuerzas autodefensas (self-defense forces), collaborated with federal and local police to fight the cartels and capture their leaders.[3] Now, in the aftermath of La Tuta’s capture, Mexico must solve the dilemma of integrating these vigilante groups productively into preexisting governmental institutions or face a challenge to its authority.       

The fuerzas autodefensas challenge the government’s authority in two ways. Primarily, the fuerzas unregulated use of arms challenges Article 10 of the Mexican Constitution. According to Article 10, citizens have the right to keep arms within their homes for protection and defense against an aggressor.[4] Unregulated gun use has tipped the scales of power in Mexico, leaving weak and corrupted police forces both underpowered and undermanned. As a result, local communities rely on extralegal assistance like the self-defense groups to defend themselves.[5] Secondarily, the self-defense groups do not conform to traditional government oversight. As a consequence, Mexico has given the vigilantes power to take justice into their own hands without out any true oversight. More importantly, it demonstrates Mexico’s inability to protect its authority and control the cohesion of its union.

The issue of unregulated guns in Mexico is a common one. The cartels’ use of guns in violation of Article 10 reaffirms this. Self-defense groups have also rejected attempts by the federal government to disarm them. Jose Manuel Mireles, a leader of one of Michoacán’s larger self-defense groups, has said, "If they disarm us, the Knights Templar will come and kill us.”[6] While Mireles’ group may appear well intentioned, self-defense groups’ possession of arms provides the groups with protection and firepower against other groups.[7] Recent gunfights between vigilante groups in Michoacán have resulted in blood feuds.[8] Should further clashes between the fuerzas continue, there is little indication that the cartels’ destruction will create peace.

The issue of regulation and oversight is equally perplexing. In the last year, after several successful battles against the cartels, Mexico legalized vigilante groups in Michoacán as a form of “grass roots security”[9] called the Rural Defense Corps.[10] This new semi-regulated organization is designed to incorporate the fuerzas autodefensas into the local and federal police.[11] However, the union has proven unstable. Self-defense groups have begun to react against both the cartels and the state. In December 2014, groups dismantled roadblocks in Apatzingan in protest of President Peña Nieto’s handling of the cartels.[12] As previously mentioned, groups have also refused to give up arms. The central government’s inability to rein the vigilantes in delegitimizes their overall control and authority. Should Mexico fail to find an agreeable way to protect its citizens and stop the rural militias, the country may become entrenched in civil war.

In conclusion, Mexico must address the overall issues of unregulated guns within its state and find a way to either incorporate the fuerza autodefensas into its police and military systems, or disband them. Failure to do so undermines the nation’s laws and cohesion. With the capture of La Tuta, many hope for peace, but that peace relies on collaboration among the people, the states, and the central government.



[1] BBC News, Mexico President Hails Capture of Drug Lord Servando ‘La Tuta’ Gomez, February 28, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-31664192

[2] Id.

[3] Foreign Affairs, Frontier Justice: How to Manage Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces, March 11, 2014, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141022/patricio-asfura-heim-and-ralph-h-espach/frontier-justice

[4] Political Database of the Americas, Constitución Federal de 1917 con reformas hasta 2010, http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Mexico/vigente.html

[5] Foreign Affairs, The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces, Vigilante Justice South of the Border, July/August 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139462/patricio-asfura-heim-and-ralph-h-espach/the-rise-of-mexicos-self-defense-forces

[6]  BBC News, Mexican Vigilantes Protest Against Plans to Disarm Them, April 7, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-26918961

[7] See, Vice News, Mexico Releases Michoacán Vigilante Leader Involved in Fatal Gun Fight with Rival Militia, March 10, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/mexico-releases-michoacan-vigilante-leader-involved-in-fatal-gun-fight-with-rival-militia

[8] Id.

[9] Vice News, Mexico Releases Michoacán Vigilante Leader Involved in Fatal Gun Fight with Rival Militia

[10] Foreign Affairs, Frontier Justice

[11] Id.

[12] International Business Times, Mexico’s Vigilantes Resurface, Faulting Government for Failing to Take Down Knights Templar Cartel, December 15, 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/mexicos-vigilantes-resurface-faulting-government-failing-take-down-knights-templar-1758088