After months of tacit cooperation with rural vigilantes trying to drive out a cult-like drug cartel, the Mexican government is seeking to permanently solve one of its toughest security problems with a plan to legalize the growing movement and bring it under the army’s control.
But the risks are high.
To succeed, the government must enforce military discipline and instill respect for human rights and due process among more than 20,000 heavily armed civilians, then eventually disband them and send them back home in the western state of Michoacan.
In other Latin American countries, similar experiments have created state-backed militias that carried out widespread human-rights abuses as armed civilians turned to vengeance or assisted in mass killings. The Mexican army itself has been accused of rights abuses during the more than seven-year war against organized crime that has seen it deployed as a police force in much of the country.
Vigilante leaders met Tuesday with government officials to hash out details of the agreement that would put avocado and lime pickers with AR-15 semi-automatic rifles under army command.
If the latest experiment works, it will resolve one of the thorniest dilemmas in the barely year-old administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto: how to handle a movement that sprang up outside the law but successfully took on a pseudo-religious drug cartel, the Knights Templar, which Mexican authorities had been unwilling or unable to take on for years.
Over the past year, the vigilantes, many of them former migrant workers who spent years in the United States, have seized a dozen towns terrorized by extortion, killings and rapes at the hands of the cartel’s gunmen. Members of the Knights Templar have tried to portray themselves as soldiers in a reincarnation of a medieval religious order dedicated to Christianity and the expulsion of abusive police from their communities.
In many instances, Associated Press reporters have witnessed federal forces stand on the sidelines while the “self-defense” forces routed the cartel, and occasionally even aid the vigilantes by conducting joint patrols and manning highway checkpoints together.
Mexican experts so far have widely accepted the administration’s plan announced late Monday, calling it a smart way to maintain the movement’s momentum against the Knights Templar while protecting the government against charges it was ceding the rule of law in the “hot lands” of Michoacan, a rugged Pacific Coast state of rich agricultural land and mountains studded by marijuana fields and methamphetamine labs.