The recent spread of ‘self-defence’ or ‘community police’ initiatives, in which neighbours of isolated communities — mostly indigenous — have taken up arms to curb the violent crime in the absence of effective government action, has become a major political issue. The federal government and some state authorities have opted for legalising them, while one official body, opposition politicians and civic leaders have been warning that this could have dangerous unwanted consequences.
On 17 February the Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH), an official body that acts as a public ombudsman’s office, issued a warning about the risks posed by the recent spread of ‘self-defence’ groups. It said it “does not deny or minimise the fact that these self-defence groups are a desperate action of the people as a result of the state’s omissions regarding public security” but went on to express concern about the possible emergence of “armed groups with interests that have nothing to do with self-protection which may threaten the stability of the institutions, because only a thin line distinguishes the [self-defence] organisations from the paramilitary groups”.
It invokes Article 17 of the constitution, which explicitly bars people from taking justice into their own hands or of resorting to violence to claim their rights and demands that ‘the corresponding authorities fulfil as a priority their essential task of ensuring public security’.
The CNDH has not been the only one to raise the alarm. The formerly ruling Partido Acciόn Nacional (PAN) issued a communiqué warning about the risk posed by “the proliferation of self-defence groups or so-called community police in several of the country’s entities.” The PAN dismisses the executive’s argument that the community police have been in existence for 15 or 17 years. “It is only now,” it says, “that they begin to represent a threat, because their very actions endanger public security.”
“The executive,” says the PAN, “should ensure that its security strategy should not only focus on prevention, but also on supporting the states so that the State does not appear as unable to provide its citizens with security.”
Javier Sicilia, leader of the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad, has publicly welcomed the emergence of “legitimate” responses to the state’s failure to ensure security, but at the same time has warned about the risk that “other groups that are not preoccupied with self-defence may cause greater harm to the country.”
Jorge Chabat, a public security expert at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), says the government must realise that it is facing a complex situation, “with many facets”. One is that of the community police, chiefly rural, not usually backed by the more affluent. Another is that of paramilitary groups similar to those that arose in Colombia, funded by wealthy individuals to ensure their own protection. A third is that of lynchings, in which the people take justice into their own hands. A fourth is that of the private security firms, which are legal and constrained — at least on paper — by regulations: they cannot make arrests (as some community police or self-defence groups have been doing).
According to Chabat neither the federal nor the state governments have the wherewithal to control these groups nor to provide the security they demand, so it opts for ‘de-facto tolerance’. Banning the self-defence groups, he says, would be too costly in political terms. The danger, he says, is that these groups could turn into criminal organisations, “as happened in Colombia, where they became organisations involved in drug-trafficking and kidnapping.”
An array of diverse developments
In Guerrero, the leaders of the Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero (Upoeg), which was launched in January as a sponsor of self-defence initiatives encouraging others to follow suit, have already been received by interior minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong. They reached an agreement whereby they would hand over to the authorities the 54 suspected criminals they had arrested and refrain from wearing hoods or masks, in exchange for their recognition of community police — and of public works and provision of services to their communities.
In theory the Upoeg will submit to the procedures established by the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias (Crac), the body which for the past 17 years has overseen the official Policía Comunitaria in rural localities. Critics say that the Upoeg has been using the implicit threat of unregulated self-defence actions as a means of achieving political aims that go beyond public security.
The government of Oaxaca, where the mayor of the municipality of Santos Reyes Nopala launched a ‘community police’ initiative on 11 February, has opposed it, arguing on the one hand that it does not need such a force because the security situation is not comparable to that of neighbouring Guerrero, and on the other that because the members of the newly created force have not been vetted through the ‘confidence control’ tests, they are not entitled to act as law enforcement agents.
In Michoacán, the Purépecha community of Cherán has been engaging since April 2011 in a campaign against illegal loggers purportedly protected by gunmen associated with La Familia Michoacana (or one of its two splinter organisations). As in Guerrero they have set up checkpoints to deter their activities (and have lost lives in the process). Their example has led 37 communities across eastern Michoacán to start considering the reactivation of their local police forces.
Officials of the state government have stated that legislation will be introduced to give these forces formal standing — but that will have to wait until the courts resolve a challenge to constitutional provisions for the indigenous communities approved by the state congress last December.
In Sinaloa, a Christmas Eve massacre of nine persons in La Concordia, followed by a nearby ambush that left two police officers dead and five injured, has led the mayor to call for the arming of a number of communities in the surrounding area that has come to be known as the ‘zone of fear ’, where people displaced by gangs associated with the narcos have been taking refuge. This call has been taken up by the mayor of the coastal city of Mazatlán.
In the north of Veracruz the communities of Tantoyuca and Platón Sánchez announced last September that they were forming a self-defence organisation named as both Comando Civil de Defensa and Guardia Civil Huasteca which has publicly threatened to “shoot to kill” against suspected drug traffickers and criminals, and have called for the government to support such initiatives with arms and training.
State governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa and the local military command have insistently claimed that this organisation does not exist.
Sidebar: GDP growth
Mexico’s GDP grew by 3.9% year-on-year in 2012, driven by agriculture, according to the national statistics institute (Inegi), after posting 3.2% year-on-year growth in the final quarter of the year. Both figures were slightly lower than those advanced by the finance ministry at the end of January.
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