Mexico’s battle with violence has gone from bad to worse. As a result, vigilante groups have sprung up to protect their families, homes, neighborhoods, and businesses. To date, only about a dozen self-defense organizations have gone public. However, their numbers and activities are bound to soar amid rising insecurity.
As a contributor to a prominent Mexico City newspaper recently wrote: “Last week my family received a second phone call demanding an extortion payment to prevent my being kidnapped. Earlier this month, our neighbor’s home was broken into, which forced us to hire a security firm to ‘protect us,’ from something the city should be doing.”
Distressing Death Data
Most kidnappings go unreported because citizens fear the authorities may be in league with the abductors. Still, the figures on murders speak for themselves. The number of drug-related deaths has increased in recent years: 2,120 (2006), 2,275 (2007), 5,207 (2008), and 5,071 through October 16 of this year. Among the victims, at least 399 were tortured and 152 beheaded. Twenty-four members of the armed forces and 326 law-enforcement agents have died this year.
Most of the bloodshed involves members of competing cartels, soldiers, police, judges, and journalists. Still, the constant dissemination on TV, radio, and newspapers of castrations, decapitations, and other amputations has affluent Mexicans fleeing the country or beefing up their personal safety, while average citizens continually look over their shoulders—especially in states with high death rates: Chihuahua (1,6l6), Sinaloa (536), Durango (512), Guerrero (524), and Michoacán (298).
Exacerbating the “fear factor” are wanton murders at drug rehabilitation centers in Ciudad Juárez, a shooting at a metro station in downtown Mexico City, and a steady increase in drug cartel activities such as Los Zetas, a vicious paramilitary group, and the equally wicked La Familia, a messianic cartel centered in the west coast state of Michoacán.
In addition to organized crime, Mexicans have faced other daunting challenges this year: the highest unemployment rate since 1995, a 7 percent contraction in GDP, sagging oil revenues, continuing bouts with the swine-flu virus, a devastated tourism industry, a prolonged drought, urban flooding, and a public-school system controlled by a corrupt union.
To his credit, President Felipe Calderón has overcome opposition from legislators, governors, and the Army to create two national police forces. During the summer, the chief executive reorganized existing agencies to create the Federal Ministerial Police (PFM) and the Federal Police (PF). The former has responsibility for helping prosecutors investigate and prepare cases; the latter enjoys investigative powers such as the right to seek telephone taps of conversations related to criminal behavior. The PF will also secure crime scenes, execute arrest warrants, and collect and process reports submitted by various state and local authorities.
Based on past experience, changes in names and duties of police agencies will not improve law enforcement. Neither the PFM nor the PF enjoys widespread support in Congress or among governors, sufficient resources, qualified recruits, or public acceptance. It’s not a question of revamping existing law-enforcement agencies. Mexico has never had a well-trained, professional, and honest national police capability. Consequently, the chief executive is starting from scratch because “policía” to the average Mexican conjures the image of venality, bribes, and collusion with the underworld.
Politicians Act with Impunity
While special interests often call the shots in Washington, U.S. citizens can make a difference in localities and, at times, at the state level. In Mexico accountability is a chimera. In fact, there is no word in Spanish that conveys the idea that public officials should be responsive to the needs of those who pay their salaries. Instead, the concept of “impunity” is often associated with public officials.
The chasm between the political elite and grassroots’ constituents breeds a sense of political helplessness in citizens. Several factors play in to this situation including a constitutional ban on reelecting chief executives and the absence of a run-off if no contender garners 50 percent—plus one vote. Nearly three years ago, Calderón ascended to power with 33.9 percent of the ballots cast, just .6 percent lead over populist rabble-rouser Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He was the nominee of the leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
A second round of voting to achieve a 50 percent mandate would have forced parties to negotiate, bargain, and compromise in pursuit of a successful mandate. The crystallization of a winning coalition might have contributed to collaboration in Congress where intolerance within, between, and among parties thrives, and continually leads to deadlock and drift.
Other constitutional and electoral law elements that divorce the establishment from the masses are: (1) prohibiting independent candidacies, (2) forbidding civic groups from airing media ads during campaigns, (3) continuing the dominance of party chiefs in selecting nominees and ranking them on proportional representation lists used to select one-fourth of the Senate and two-fifths of the Chamber of Deputies, (4) disallowing deputies, senators, governors, state legislators, and mayors to serve consecutive terms in their offices, and (5) failing to forge a coherent, responsible left.
In addition, many lawmakers lack defined constituencies, which militates against advancing the interest of average men and women. All the while, elected officials line their pockets with generous salaries, hefty fringe benefits, Christmas bonuses, travel funds, free medical care, office expense accounts, insurance payments, pensions, “leaving office” stipends, and many other ways to live the good life. At least three dozen public servants officially earn $225,000 or more.
At the same time, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which registers voters, supervises elections, and reports preliminary vote tallies, lavishes monies on political parties (3.6 billion pesos or $277 million in 2009). No wonder that the late Carlos Hank González, a powerful figure in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), remarked: “Show me a politician who is poor and I will show you a poor politician.”
“The wasteful spending of politicians is so flagrant that no one in his right mind sees any logic in paying more taxes for public insecurity, water scarcity, higher energy prices, and the terrible quality of health and educational services,” according to the astute analyst Luis Rubio.
Former Sinaloa Governor Juan S. Millán Lizárraga recounts the story of a newly elected deputy who visited an impoverished flyspecked village in the far reaches of his Veracruz district. He told the subsistence-level and dirt-scratching peasants, who shuffled into the town square to hear him: “Take a good, long look at my face … because this is the last time you are going to see it in this shit-kicking pueblo. And he kept his word.”
The national media shed some light on irresponsible federal officials, but governors tend to rule the roost as caciques, or strongmen, in their states. These executives reign over fiefdoms thanks to a compliant press (whose owners fear losing state advertising), close economic bonds to businessmen (who clamor for government contracts), and blatant manipulation of states legislatures (whose member receive extravagant salaries and benefits in return for rubber-stamping executive initiatives).
The thirty-one state governors and Mexico City’s mayor, whom PRI presidents kept on a short leash, gained emancipation from central dominance when the opposition swept to power in 2000. Except when they descend on Mexico City during the preparation of the national budget, state executives can ignore Los Pinos.
Although Calderón and his PAN strongly back the military, PRI and PRD leaders are calling for the military to return to the barracks. Meanwhile, few politicians want an effective national gendarmerie lest a lean-clean-law enforcement machine begin scrutinizing their wealth, shady friends, conflicts-of-interest, and payola to family members who form part of the kleptocracy.
Armed Forces and Human Rights Abuses
Consequently, the government has relied heavily on the armed forces to combat the ever-more powerful drug cartels. The assignment of the Army, Navy, and Marines to spearhead this crusade has sparked charges of human rights violations.
Former foreign secretary Jorge Castañeda, a Human Rights Watch board member, urged the U.S. State Department to withhold 15 percent of Mérida Initiative funding in light of abuses. In a letter to the Washington Post in mid-August, he argued that: “Human rights abuses are a major obstacle to Mexico's efforts to strengthen public security and contain drug-related violence. By abusing civilians, Mexican soldiers have contributed to the climate of lawlessness and violence in which drug cartels have thrived. These abuses also deter the public cooperation essential to curbing trafficking.”
While no one can justify the trampling of citizens’ rights, what the erstwhile cabinet secretary under President Vicente Fox-and like-minded observers forget—is that without reliable civilian police—there is something worse than mobilizing soldiers, sailors, and marines against wrongdoers—namely, the rise of vigilantism.
Of course, egregious abuses have occurred. On June 1, 2007, soldiers at a checkpoint in the Sierra Mountains of Sinaloa fired more than a dozen rounds into an automobile, killing three children and two unarmed women. In the aftermath of this bloodbath, the Defense Ministry, which has established a human rights’ office, arrested three officers and sixteen soldiers. Still, on March 26, 2008, soldiers killed five more civilians whose car failed to stop at a guard post in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, a hot bed of narcotics activity.
Castañeda and his confreres seek to have human rights abuse allegations heard by civilian, not military, courts. They argued that of the 500 suspected human rights violations presented to the Army between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2008, only 174 investigations were initiated, just eleven suspects were apprehended and no sentences were handed down. Military tribunals hear most criminal cases against soldiers and they often treat them as disciplinary matters rather than crimes. The top brass adamantly opposes any change to the system.
No one would be happier than President Felipe Calderón if he could transfer the pursuit of criminal syndicates from the Army and Navy to civilian authorities. Yet despite the reorganization of national police forces, Mexico lacks a credible, responsible, and effective public-safety capability.
Rise of Vigilantism
In the absence of trustworthy cops, citizens are taking the law into their own hands. On December 3, 2008, six masked men stopped the car of Jorge and César Muñoz Reyes who were carrying cattle from their ranch outside of Parral, a small city in Chihuahua state, where assassins killed Pancho Villa in 1923.
The culprits ordered the men out of their vehicle, shot César, and kidnapped Jorge. Their father had to mortgage his property to pay a 5 million peso ransom ($385,000) to obtain Jorge’s freedom. Five days later, local cattlemen began to meet with other business community members to discuss creating a self-protection force. The leader of the group spoke cautiously only about the “possibility” of such a vigilante movement.
More outspoken have been members of the self-styled Citizen Command for Juárez (CCJ). This group sprang to life in the violence-plagued Ciudad Juárez, which lies across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
In an e-mail to the media, this shadowy organization claimed to be funded by local entrepreneurs outraged by kidnappings, murders, and extortion in the sprawling metropolis of 1.4 million people. The CCJ may have killed and piled up the corpses of six men in their 20s and 30s in October 2008, leaving behind a sign: “Message for all the rats: This will continue.” Early this year, a body was found in the city along with the warning: “This is for those who continue extorting.”
The respected El Universal newspaper reported that on January 15, 2009, the CCJ sent a communication to the media warning that it would kill one criminal every 24 hours. “The time has come to put an end to this disorder … if criminals are identified, information can be sent electronically about the ‘bad person’ who deserves to die.” It was signed, “El Coma.”
Reuters news service reported that another group—“Businessmen United, The Death Squad”—aired on YouTube threatening to hunt down mafiosi in Ciudad Juárez. At least two other vigilante-style bands have dispatched statements to the media: one in the northern state of Sonora, which borders Arizona; the other in the Pacific state of Guerrero, home to the resort city of Acapulco—now referred to as “Narcopulco” because of ubiquitous drug activities.
The execution of Benjamín Le Baron, an anti-cartel activist in Galeana, Chihuahua, prompted his law-abiding Mormon community to consider forming its own self-defense contingent. In May hitmen kidnapped Le Baron's brother, prompting the 2,000 local citizens to stage demonstrations in the state capital of Chihuahua. They refused to pay a $1 million ransom. Even after the youth was released, residents—many of whom are dual U.S. citizens—held protests to plead for police protection in the remote desert lands of Chihuahua state.
On July 7, gunmen broke into Le Baron's home and tortured him in front of his family before absconding with him and his brother-in-law, executing them, and dumping their corpses in the nearby countryside. At first, Chihuahua’s PRI Governor, José Reyes Baeza, agreed to provide training and weapons for a security squad in Galeana. This proposal met criticism from the president of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) who insisted that arming citizens would indicate a “failure” of the political regime.
Taxi operators in Mexico City’s Magdalena Contreras borough did take the law into their own hands. They suffered multiple assaults and robberies by thugs, who were believed to be protected by the police. When local authorities failed to nab the culprits after three complaints, the drivers acted. They seized the presumed leader of the assailants, “El Perro” (“The Dog”), and bludgeoned him to death.
Their goals were to send a message to the gangsters, to obtain the names of other members of the criminal band, and to “accomplish justice” on their own. On August 14, Ismael Quintero Oliver and Marcos Érik Pérez Mora, leaders of the informal “pacto de los choferes” (“drivers’ pact”) were arrested with El Perro’s cadaver in the backseat of their Ford Aerostar.10 The case has yet to be resolved.
Vigilantes’ Actions: Moving Toward Anarchy?
Thus far the vigilantes’ actions represent isolated occurrences. However, Defense Secretary Guillermo Galván Galván must keep his pledge to persuade the military of the importance of human rights.
Meanwhile, critics of the military must remember that removing troops from the streets—in the absence of competent police—will lead more crime victims to take the law into their own hands. And that is a big step toward anarchy—a condition that would threaten the security of the United States.