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By Robert Valencia
In the last several decades, security scholars and journalists alike have invoked the term “Colombianization” to describe the impact drug-related violence has on Mexico. Though Mexicans generally reject the comparison, there is no doubt that the rampant violence in Mexico resembles that of Colombia. The recent creation of self-defense forces seeking to tame drug-related violence in the state of Michocán is a sign that the comparison may hold a degree of truth. Given Mexico’s weak public security system, these armed civilian groups will undoubtedly increase. The trend has security analysts wondering, how will these groups impact Mexico’s safety?
2013 saw a rise in paramilitary groups, especially in the Mexican state of Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente region. In a recent interview with Mexican newspaper El Universal, paramilitary leader José Mireles Valverde proposed the creation of more armed civilian groups, encouraging the use of force by those affected, especially people who have seen their relatives abducted, tortured, or killed.
Peasants, entrepreneurs, cattle owners, and other citizens have decided to take security matters into their own hands, joining these civilian groups. They have acquired all kinds of weapons, from firearms to machetes. Take, for example, the town of Parácuaro. Its 25,000 inhabitants are increasingly threatened by large drug cartels including the Knights Templar, a remnant of the extinct La Familia Michoacana cartel. Two hundred of the town’s residents have enlisted in these groups, vowing to protect their town from the drug lords.
Other towns have already suffered at the hands of the cartels. In the town of Apatzingán, the Knights Templar burned down commercial establishments, vehicles, and the city hall offices. Their violence spawned the creation and intervention of paramilitary groups. In some instances, the civilian groups have successfully kicked the Knights Templar out.
So far the paramilitaries have moved into 20 out of 113 municipalities in Michoacán. It is very likely that these groups will expand their activities into other southern states. Paramilitary leaders such as Hipólito Mora called on more people to join, to “ be up in arms...specifically Michoacán [inhabitants].” Most recently, paramilitary leader Mireles posted on Facebook, “It is the moment that [Mexican inhabitants] join us in defense of their lives, because this is a do-or-die struggle.”
The Mexican government is trying to regain control, deploying thousands of servicemen and police, but they have not succeeded thus far. Since the Felipe Calderón administration (2006-2012), Mexico’s drug-war death toll has reached 77,000. As a result, in 2013, the purchase of legal arms skyrocketed by 331 percent, according to the National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA), the governmental organization that’s in charge of weapon sales to private companies and citizens alike. This figure notably does not take into account the number of illegal guns smuggled into the country from the U.S.
Mireles and paramilitary members claim that their sole objective is to “exterminate every single organized crime.” They justify their actions by employing the principle of self-defense, which is protected by the constitution. However, some believe paramilitaries are acting illegally, including Justice Minister Jesús Murillo. The archbishop of Michoacán’s capital Morelia, Alberto Suárez Inda, rejects the idea of residents taking justice into their own hands. He even labeled the groups unconstitutional, though he pointed out that they could be considered Michoacan’s “last resort” to preserve security.
The Mexican government rejects paramilitary groups and seeks to disassemble them. Last May, more than 6,000 policemen occupied the Tierra Caliente in order to dismantle the paramilitaries. But thousands of Michoacán’s citizens support the self-defense groups. In light of Mexico’s weak and often corrupt security infrastructure, many see the paramilitary groups as an appropriate way to deal with drug-violence.
Paramilitarism, however, doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of rampant violence. Armed citizen groups can become just as dangerous as the drug kingpins. In Colombia, the rise of paramilitary groups increased violence throughout the country. Created in the 1970s, paramilitary groups in Colombia sought to fight off the burgeoning Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. However, since the creation of these paramilitary groups, the country has witnessed heightened levels of violence often associated with armed civilian defense groups.
The rise of The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish) in the 1990s revealed the dark side of paramilitarism. Although the group appeared a legitimate way to curb guerrilla violence, their activities—considered illegal by Colombian justice—spun out of control. Instead of protecting the population from guerrilla attacks, the AUC carried out a swath of massacres under the assumption that some peasants were guerrilla collaborators. A United Nations report indicated that approximately 80 percent of all the killings in Colombia’s civil conflict have been perpetrated by paramilitaries. They are mainly responsible for the country’s high displaced persons index, the world’s second largest after Darfur. In 2001, Colombian government sources indicated that the paramilitary groups conducted at least 40 percent of all cocaine exports from the country.
Though the paramilitaries in Colombia demobilized between 2003 and 2006, there are new emerging paramilitary organizations in Colombia. Groups like the Black Eagles, Urabeños, and Rastrojos, to name a few, are growing, and continue to be involved with drug trade and human rights abuses. The reach of paramilitarism in Colombian society is so great that 139 members of Congress were under investigation for ties with paramilitaries leaders. The political scandal is known as parapolitics, and it has mostly involved political allies of then President Alvaro Uribe Velez, coincidentally one of the precursors of other paramilitary movements such as CONVIVIR.
It is too soon to tell whether paramilitarism will further compromise Mexico’s security the same way auto-defense groups did in Colombia. But the situations in both countries share striking similarities. Both movements started as a way to protect citizens; they operate outside of a legal framework, thus increasing the chance of perpetrating human rights abuses and collateral damages.
The most jarring coincidence of paramilitarism is the violence that often accompanies it, a the result of an ineffective public safety system and deep mistrust by the population. The Mexican government is trying to persuade paramilitaries to give up their intent to confront the Knights Templar, but self-defense groups say they will not negotiate with the government unless they are authorized to arrest some of the cartel’s kingpins.
The debate lies in how the government could bar paramilitary buildup without transgressing gun possession rights for personal defense. Corrupt-free law enforcement would lead to cooperation with the population, effectively apprehending drug cartel kingpins and averting a rise of paramilitarism across the nation.
The rising case of paramilitarism now belongs to a larger problem: a futile war on drugs that focuses on draconian prohibition, rather than seeking legalization that would withdraw the profitable business from drug cartels. International powers play a large role in relaxing highly punishable legislation, making this issue an international one. Until this is fully addressed by Mexico’s leaders as well as the global community, Mexico will have to grapple with unbridled standoffs that will deepen the bloodshed and destruction.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.
[Photo courtesy of Jubilo Haku]
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