The war the Mexican government is waging against drug cartels has dragged along for years and resulted in nothing but more instability and civilian casualties. The government simply doesn’t seems to be able to get a grip on these huge organizations. As a reaction to this, a new ‘force’ entered the game and already has one of the major cartels, Los Caballeros Templarios, on the run. Are these ‘anti-drug cartel vigilantes’ a good development, or will they make things worse?

Media has dubbed them ‘vigilantes’, yet the men prefer to call themselves ‘self-defense groups’. The title of vigilantes is well picked though. Nowadays a vigilante is understood as a ‘man who takes the law into its own hands’, being little better than a criminal. The original term sterns from the 19th century ‘vigilance committees’ who emerged in the ‘Wild West’ and consisted of private citizens who took up arms when law was not established and fought criminals and corrupt officials themselves.  These emerged at the shifting boundary of the United States as it was expanding westwards and the state had not yet installed the rule of law in these border areas. Acting outside the law themselves as well, these groups fought fire with fire, sometimes leading to excessive actions and the killing of innocents. The committees were generally abandoned when the conditions that led to their creation ceased to exist; when the state had established the rule of law.

Back to today’s Mexico, where a similar situation appears to be in place. The state has been unable to constitute the rule of law in parts of the country; drug cartels are almighty, the government is corrupted and infiltrated at all levels and extrajudicial killings have become an everyday phenomenon. One of the most powerful cartels is ‘Los Caballeros Templarios’, or Knights Templar, a cult-like organization named after the medieval crusaders. The Knights had a firm grip on large parts of Michoacan, a predominantly agricultural state in central Mexico, yet have now been pushed out several cities by the vigilantes.

One of the most powerful cartels are the “Knights Templar”

The vigilantes originally consisted of groups of farmers using machetes, guns and hunting rifles to protect their local communities against extortion and other cartel-related violence. The movement quickly grew in both number and firepower and currently consist of a wide variety of civilians ranging from (ex)government forces to pensioners. The vigilantes claim to number in thousands (wildest estimate is 20.000) and are widely present throughout Michoacan, openly performing patrols, manning roadblocks and guarding abandoned cartel buildings. After retaking Nuevo Italia, the vigilantes have now moved into the Knight’s stronghold, Apatzingan. A couple of months ago, this would have been unimaginable in the city then firmly in the hands of the Knights (they drove around in cars carrying their logo, had an open ‘training facility’ and subsidized anti-government protests), yet now the Knights seem to be on the run.

It is not just the Knights that get headaches from these vigilantes, the Mexican government does not know how deal with these armed civilians either. Obviously, having two huge armed, non-governmental organizations fight each other within the country does not do much good to the Weberian ideal of a state’s monopoly of violence. More painful though is the fact that the government has been fighting the cartels for years with little success, whereas the vigilantes in only a couple of months seem to be making a difference.

That the Mexican government is indecisive on what to think of the vigilantes becomes visible in the way they have acted towards it. First, they largely ignored them, having more pressing concerns than a some farmers defending themselves from criminals. As the vigilantes grew in number and importance however, the state demanded a disarmament of the groups. The vigilantes completely ignored this order and continued their actions, after which the government decided turning a blind eye on them would be the best thing to do. Yet as the vigilantes’ successes continued and their actions grew in boldness, confronting the cartel in full fetched pitch battles, the government stepped in again. This led to a confrontation in which allegedly 3 civilians died, yet the vigilantes’ leader, who is currently heavily guarded by government forces, remained free of arrest. After that, the government changed its mind once more and currently cooperates with the vigilantes every now and then. Furthermore, the vigilantes have been offered badges which would turn them into official government forces. So far however, the greater part of the vigilantes has refused to be ‘institutionalized’, stating that they are an independent force.

The government efforts to get a hold on the vigilantes does not just stern from concerns about their own legitimacy. The vigilantes have been accused of being infiltrated by rival cartels, to which it would prove a lucrative way to get rid of their competition. Another concern is the fact that although the vigilantes claim to fight for justice, their operations take place outside the law. Their actions are not checked or balanced in any institutionalized way and since the vigilantes largely remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals by the Knights it is hard to hold anyone accountable as well. Be that as it may, the biggest peril the vigilantes pose is what will happen after they succeed in ousting the Knights. To have large groups of armed men that do not adhere to any authority but their own is, as Libya tells, probably not something wishful for a country that has seen enough instability in recent years.

Whether the vigilantes will have a positive or negative influence on the drug conflict in Mexico thus remains a big uncertainty. It is to hope that the vigilantes will do honor to their name and disband when the conditions that led to their creation cease to exist.

Photo by Keith Dannemiller
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