The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Militias


An article about females forming a self-defense militia in southern Mexico has been making the rounds in recent days (including on the PanAm Facebook page). The context and incentives at play can be understood by anyone. The state has failed to control violence and coercion in the area, up to a point where people in rural areas have lost their patience. Now they are finally taking up arms and justice into their hands.

This is not a new phenomenon in Mexico. It has been going on since 1995, but in the last 10 months these self-defense militia groups appear to have been expanding and generating more spotlight and public interest. In the first quarter of 2013, for example, up to 50 visible groups received coverage in over 10 different states of the Mexican federation.

What is going on? Are we facing a last stand from civil society against organized crime (both private and public)? Is the bloodshed stopping at last?

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The first aspect I need to make clear is that there is not a homogeneous movement. Each community and militia has its own dynamics and foundations. While some of these organizations are new, many have been out there for more than 15 years and are more the remnants of the 1994 Zapatista uprising than a new defense where government has failed.

Another important consideration, before people jump to conclusions, is the relationships of these militias with government authorities. Some claim self-defense as their only goal and do it by themselves without governmental help or military intervention. Others, however, engage in negotiations with local and state authorities, which suggests the spreading of this phenomenon as a negotiation instrument, not only for security but other benefits from the state.

Before we ask ourselves if we would like to see more of these self-defense militias spreading throughout Mexico, we should first consider what form these will most likely take. We also need to be skeptical of any romantic hopes that these civil militias will stand independent from and in defiance of organized crime and corrupt politicians.

Unfortunately, they’ll be less likely to fight corrupt governments than to influence them to get their share. Further, even when they have proved effective at closing communities to organized crime, they have not guaranteed liberty against coercion. Some of them have created a new and even more coercive form of state with no true respect for individual liberty. Once they have succeeded in assuring their security, they could well use the same force to demand “social justice” or other benefits, making the situation worse for themselves and other innocent people.

One thing is for sure, incumbent politicians are not granting much leeway. With their civil society cohort (human rights NGOs) on the one hand and the military apparatus on the other, they are fighting the new threat to their monopoly over the use of force.

In Mexico there is no Second Amendment, and public opinion stands against armed opposition and organized self-defense. So when military personnel arrested more than 40 members of one self-defense group last week in Guerrero, there was not much of a public commotion. Nor has there been a backlash to their declared intention to put neighboring groups behind bars.

That particular incident appears to involve economic interests and a political standoff between a mining company and the community. So even if one is a critic of the development of self-defense militias in Mexico, it still undermines the fundamental legitimacy of the state’s purported self-defense justification in this location.

Could this movement make the bloodshed stop? If by this movement we are referring to innocent people getting tired of fearing for their life and property, I think it could. A particularly positive aspect of the article about women in Xaltianguis taking arms and defending themselves is that they are realizing the empowering and equalizing effect that armed and organized self-defense can create. This kind of dynamic could definitely help in stopping the bloodshed, but in the end it remains an empirical question that needs time and evidence for its efficiency to be determined.

Just don’t get your hopes up too high. There is hardly common ground among these groups, and an end to violence in Mexico is not around the corner. Public force and government corruption, drug liberalization, and a targeted attack on organized crime (against their actual criminal activities such as murder and kidnapping) are all needed to end the massive scale of violence. Meanwhile, the main concern of government, army, and supposed experts is opposing private self-defense. Go figure.

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