|Illegal logging in Veracruz|
These groups have variously organized to respond to the threat of organized crime and to the illegal or excessive exploitation of natural resources.
The activity has increased in the past three years. It has also changed, with disturbing evidence that organized crime is leveraging the populist movement to its own advantage.
For example, though it was sparked by murders in the municipalities of Ayutla and Tixtla in Guerrero, the phenomenon has resulted in community patrols of about 500 masked men with AK-47s showing up in Tepalcatepec, Michoacán. In Tepalcatepec the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG) may be using community policing as a cover to expand their plaza in areas controlled by the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios) Cartel.
The acts, whether genuine community responses or covers for organized crime, are assuredly against the law. Articles 11, 25, 21, 20 and 17 of the Mexican Constitution state clearly that no non-state entity can detain people, use weapons, or control access to communities or transit routes. However, the new PRI administration of Enrique Peña Nieto has expressed a degree of tolerance and even support for some groups, particularly in the state of Guerrero.
As well, Reforma notes that the community police in Acatlán, Guerrero, may have a legal argument under articles 2 and 39 of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which allows for compensation for those offenses that are against ancestral traditions. Guerrero is surely where such groups are best established: in the mountainous Costa Chica region, a total of 15 municipalities have now organized civil defence units to protect themselves from kidnapping, extortion, and robbery.
Other examples have included the indigenous Seri people of Sonora, who have organized to defend their territory in Punta Chueca, about 150 kilometers from Hermosillo and near the Bahía de Kino.
Back in Michoacán, the Purépecha Cherán community faced down organized crime and illegal loggers in the town of Ostula in the Aquila township. Poor campesinos had had enough: they took up arms to defend themselves, but only after 27 activists had been killed and another five “disappeared”.
In the municipalities of Ascención a Galeana in Chihuahua, Mennonite and Mormon neighbours armed themselves to stop kidnappings, extortions, and murders of family members by organized crime.
And in the city of Chihuahua itself citizens in the Obrera neighbourhood took up arms and established vigilantes to confront thieves, though they pulled back when police intervened.
Vigilante groups have appeared also in the State of Mexico surrounding Mexico City. In three municipalities – Amatepec, Tlatlaya and Tejupilco – neighbours have established armed groups to confront elements of the La Familia Michoacana Cartel. But that response has had dire consequences: three days after announcing the creation of the groups, their leader, Luis Enrique Granillo, was kidnapped with five others. That was on February 15, and the six have yet to be heard from. They may yet join the country’s list of almost 27,000 “disappeared”.
Most recently, last week indigenous groups in the southern state of Chiapas took up machetes and clubs in order to demand the closing of Canadian-owned gold mines because of their excessive use of water resources.
The fear faced by many is that the growth in civil defence groups in Mexico will then dovetail into an expansion of paramilitary organisations, some with cartel influence. The challenge will then be to see what the response will be on the part of the Mexican state. Will it indulge in increased militarization, or will it acknowledge that the federal government has ceded control in some remote areas, as happened with the Zapatista movement in Chiapas?
(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)
For related articles please see:
February 26: Human Rights Watch should take a bow: It’s “official” – at least 26,121 people reported missing during Calderón sexenio
February 14: Mexico’s interior minister expresses “solidarity, trust, and support” with self-defence groups
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