Small Wars Journal

Citizen Security as an Informal Institution: A Mexican Case Study

Thu, 09/10/2015 - 12:20am

Citizen Security as an Informal Institution: A Mexican Case Study

Michael Hoopes


After recent concentrated efforts by U.S. authorities to disrupt the drug smuggling and distribution networks of Mexican criminal organizations within the United States, the drug-producing groups of western Mexico, seeking new forms of revenue, have in the last three years put greater emphasis on extortion, kidnapping, and the takeover of profitable farms throughout the state (Althaus and Dudley, 2014: 8). “Gang levies were imposed on everything from limes, avocados and cattle to the square footage of homes and businesses,” states one report, producing a climate that caused Hipólito Mora, a wealthy landowner in the state of Michoacán to in found one of the state's first armed citizen militias, known as an autodefensa, in early 2013. Mora, in describing the presence of drug cartels in rural Michoacán that led him to take up arms, stated that “they took a piece of everything...I got tired of it and said I had to do something for my people” (2014).

The citizen militias grew quickly, and by March 2014 they had taken control of 32 municipalities throughout western Michoacán. It is the nature of the 2013 proliferation of citizen security throughout Michoacán that cemented the state's collective autodefensas as an informal, unsanctioned institution for enforcing security.  Specifically, the deference given to the autodefensas by all levels of the Mexican government made it clear that the militias were those authorized to mete out justice, not the designated local, state, or federal security forces.

Recognizing that “informal rules shape how democratic institutions work” because they “reinforce, subvert, and sometimes even supersede formal rules, procedures, and organizations,” Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky have asserted the importance of studying the role that informal institutions play in Latin American society because of their effect on the “quality, performance, and stability of democracy” (Helmke and Levitsky, 2006: 2-3). Informal institutions vary widely, encompassing practices such as clientelism, patrimonialism, corruption, or coalition building. Moreover, the study of institutions not overtly political also benefits from analysis under an informal institutions framework, as shown in Donna Lee Van Cott’s chapter on citizen security as an informal legal institution in indigenous Peru and Bolivia (2006: 249-273). In the end, Van Cott’s study of how and why this informal legal institution—comprised of indigenous citizen security forces like rural Peru’s rondas campesinas and urban Bolivia’s juntas vecinales—has emerged, evolved, and affected the quality of the rule of law in its host communities provides a useful theoretical foundation for analyzing other cases of informal citizen security institutions throughout Latin America and their effect on citizenship and rule of law.

Inspired by Van Cott’s theoretical approach to analyzing informal justice systems in the Andes, this paper seeks to analyze citizen security forces in the Mexican state of Michoacán as part of a larger institution of informal justice with the goal of better understanding the effect that these citizen security forces have had on western Mexico’s rule of law from 2013 to early 2015. These groups, like their Andean counterparts, have thrived in an environment “in which state legal institutions either do not exist or are widely viewed as corrupt or ineffective.” (2006: 12). Just as Van Cott examines the efforts of the Peruvian and Bolivian governments to legally recognize informal justice institutions and the challenges therein, this study will assess the challenges and threats to rule of law that have accompanied the Mexican federal government’s recent attempt to incorporate Michoacán's armed autodefensas as a legitimate bulwark against the region’s drug-based insecurity prior to their attempt to eliminate them. First, the Mexican case of an informal security institution shows that not all informal security institutions restore the rule of law in the absence of state security capacity. Additionally, Michoacán proves to be a cautionary example of the ineffective formalization of a citizen security institution, showing that a state's effort to formalize an informal institution that poses inherent threats to the rule of law can slow any effort to restore security to a violent and crime-ridden region.

Theoretical Framework

This study adds to recent literature on state capacity and informal institutions. Helmke and Levitsky use Informal Institutions and Democracy to explore the effects of informal institutions on four areas, namely political representation, democratic accountability, democratic governance, citizenship and the rule of law. The authors note that informal institutions can affect any four of these areas “for both good and ill,” something that rings true in the book's chapters on informal security institutions and its effect on citizenship and the rule of law (2006: 8). For example, Daniel Brinks shows how informal rules in major Brazilian and Argentine cities within the justice system and security forces allows for extrajudicial executions of suspected violent criminals, a clear case of informal security institutions having a negative effect on the rule of law.

In her chapter on unofficial police forces in indigenous communities in Peru and Bolivia, Donna Lee Van Cott gives a positive case of “informal institutions [helping] to protect citizenship rights where the state fails to do so,” adding that “in parts of the Andes in which state legal institutions either do not exist or are widely viewed as corrupt or ineffective, informal systems of justice such as indigenous law, community patrols, and neighborhood juntas have been used to resolve disputes, provide security, and dispense justice” (2006: 12). As in Van Cott's Andean case, state legal institutions do exist in western Mexico, but are viewed as corrupt and ineffective. This is largely due to the rise of organized crime in the region and its infiltration into state and local level security and political apparatuses. Beginning in 2012, rural citizens in cartel-controlled areas formed armed militias known as autodefensas to, like their Andean counterparts, fill the void in justice and rule of law produced by corrupt and inactive local and state police. However, unlike Peru's rondas campesinas and Bolivia's juntas vecinales, the autodefensas are commonly recognized to have replaced one lawless system with another.

What happens in the rare case that an informal institution is formalized by the government in which it operates? The answer to this question, largely unaddressed in the existing literature on formal institutions, is provided in the recent security developments in western Mexico. Indeed, the Mexican case provides a unique example of an unsanctioned informal institution becoming sanctioned and absorbed into current government structure. Whereas citizen security forces in indigenous communities in Peru and Bolivia continue without any form of official government approval, the problems associated with the vigilante nature of Mexican autodefensas prompted the Mexican government to co-opt the various vigilante groups of Michoacán and formalize citizen security as an institution. What has resulted from this official sanctioning, however, is a controversial dynamic that has in many cases diminished the authority of preexisting subnational governing institutions. The Mexican case thus provides crucial evidence that attempts to formalize informal institutions—especially those that address security—can be anything but a smooth process that benefits the democratic rights enjoyed by citizens.

With this formalization, autodefenas not only provide a negative case of an informal institution affecting citizenship and the rule of law, but they also illustrate how an informal security institution, once incorporated and formalized by the state, negatively affects the area of democratic governance. Though the autodefensas cease to be informal with their incorporation into the state security apparatus and subsequent transformation into fuerzas rurales, it is still important to study how the formalization of an informal institution negatively affects democratic governance. In the case of western Mexico, democratic governance has been especially tested as a new federal entity tasked with overseeing citizen security clashes with state and local government officials over jurisdiction.

In addition to recent scholarship on informal institutions, this study is also informed by research on state capacity and the rule of law, particularly that of political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell. In defining rule of law as it relates to security institutions, O'Donnell quotes legal scholar Joseph Raz, who states that “the discretion of crime preventing agencies should not be allowed to pervert the law” (Raz, 1977). If one is to broadly define “the law” in this case as the equal protection of all citizens, she can assume from Van Cott's study that rondas campesinas and juntas vecinales mostly uphold the rule of law in the absence of official security forces, as few cases of abuses by these forces are provided. Mexico's autodefensas, on the other hand, have in some cases used their discretion as the crime preventing agencies in their areas of operation to provide the opposite of equal protection of their citizens by committing many of the crimes and colluding with the organized crime groups they are purported to have replaced. In this sense we see a case not of “rule by laws, not men,” but the rule by autodefensa groups who in more than a few cases have use their state-sanctioned informality to weaken the rule of law (O’Donnell, 2004: 34).

Citizen security in western Mexico fits Helmke and Levitsky’s definition of an informal institution for a number of reasons. Helmke and Levitsky are clear in stating that groups such as mafias are not informal institutions, but are simply organizations. However, these groups often operate within informal institutions. Likewise, individual autodefensa groups in Mexico are not in themselves informal institutions, but instead operate within the informal institution that is citizen security in western Mexico. First, citizen security in western Mexico fits Helmke and Levitsky’s assertion that an informal institution is a defined by “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside officially sanctioned channels” (Helmke and Levitsky, 2006: 5). As a later description will illustrate, the deference given by Mexican authorities to the autodefensas throughout 2013 and early 2014 enshrined militia-led security as the rule, not the exception, for security in the more than 20 municipalities in which the autodefensas operated. Outside of any officially sanctioning by the government, atodedefensas performed tasks normally ascribed to state police forces as they carried out arrests (often against corrupt police and local officials), set up road checkpoints, and attacked elements of organized crime.

Informal Institutions in the Mexican Government's War on Organized Crime

On paper, the Mexican government's security apparatus appears highly institutionalized—an expected strength that accompanies the country's upward economic and democratic evolution referred to by many as the Mexican Miracle. By the early 1990s, Mexico's security apparatus consisted of a small number of broad and well-defined organizations with corresponding jurisdictions. With Mexico's Secretariat of Public Security (SSP), an internal organ of the cabinet-level Secretariat of the Interior overseeing all operations, Mexico's national-level security jurisdiction belonged to the Federal Police, with State Police organizations overseeing state-level security and smaller forces overseeing security at municipal and local levels. Since the mid-1990s, however, Mexico's security institutions have evolved and expanded dramatically in an attempt to combat the threat posed by powerful drug-based criminal organizations.

The way in which the Mexican state has intensely expanded and restructured its security institutions in its recent war against criminal organizations indicates that the state's attempt to produce more capable security institutions has actually resulted in an even weaker security apparatus challenged by two types of informal institutions. These two institutions are armed criminal organizations (drug cartels), and, in the recent case of western Mexico, civil defense elements. In expanding the theoretical discussion of Latin American institutions, Guillermo O'Donnell argues that the rise of institutionalist interpretations within the study of Latin American politics must reflect “the actual rules that are being followed,” not how institutions necessarily appear on paper (O’Donnell, 1996: 12). Thus, in the case of Mexican security institutions, it is key to develop a research model on Mexican security institutions that accounts for the fact that the actual rules being followed in numerous parts of the country have not been set by government institutions, but by informal institutions.

For over a decade, the nationwide presence of Mexican criminal organizations with a dominant collective role in the global production and trafficking of drugs has been a key indicator of the quality of Mexico's institutions. Drug cartels like the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, and the Knights Templar—depending on who is in control of a particular area at any given time—overcome rival organizations in bloody turf wars to become informal institutions that usurp the role of the state in terms of security, job creation, and at times even public service. Perhaps the most dominant of these groups, the Sinaloa Cartel, provides a key example of a functioning informal institution. Controlling drug production and trafficking operations in most of the state of Sinaloa and large parts of Sonora and Chihuahua, the group's initial force and use of bribes to co-opt corrupt government security forces and political officials gave it de-facto—if not outright—control over much of Sinaloa's municipalities.

The informal institution of the Sinaloa Cartel's control over the state has been manifest in a number of ways. For one, the Cartel has supplemented and in some cases replaced state welfare and public works programs and taken on security duties. Shortly after the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera in early 2014, a National Public Radio story profiled one Sinaloa resident's revelation of the Cartel's role in public affairs: “Christina says no one here is happy about Guzman's arrest. Because of Guzman, she says, everything is under control — people don't steal, kidnap or extort here...He helped the poor, paved roads, gave people jobs—the list of good deeds goes on” (Kahn, 2014). What is more is that once the Cartel had gained control, the Mexican government did little to combat its foothold, and the Mexican government's apparent policy of avoiding concentrated conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel while pursuing its rivals throughout northern Mexico is well documented (Burnett et. al., 2010).

Recent years have proven that drug cartels do not make up Mexico's only informal security institution. The institution of citizen security in western Mexico, beginning in 2012 and enduring to the present, provides an example of how citizen security forces in the form of western Mexico's autodefensa groups have proven an effective indicator of and factor in affecting Mexico's rule of law. The state of Michoacán functions as a case study because it is, with the exception of the neighboring state of Guerrero, unique for hosting the only mobilization of citizen security in Mexico. While a weak state presence has surely influenced the rise of autodefensas in western Mexico, this paper does not argue that such an institution is a direct result of a weak state security institutions. While this study will show that informal institutions of citizen security can arise in environments in which the state enjoys a weak institutional presence, it is ultimately argued that autodefensas have emerged because of an absence of the rule of law in Michoacán, but that their presence has not necessarily improved the rule of law. In this sense, it appears that the absence of rule of law when elements of organized crime faced little state or public opposition has been replaced by an imperfect rule of law since autodefensas have asserted themselves as guarantors of security.

Autodenfensa Criminal Ties and the Rule of Law

With regards to a positive rule of law, O'Donnell states that “the rules that regulate state institutions should be clear, publicly available, and properly enacted,” adding that “prompt and effective mechanisms must be in place to prevent, stop, or redress state violations of citizens' rights” (O’Donnell, 2004: 44). Due to their informality, there were no rules to regulate autodefensas prior to their transformation into state-sanctioned fuerzas rurales. Still, the absence of regulatory, properly-enacted rules does not mean that an informal security institution will weaken the rule of law, as Van Cott demonstrates. Nevertheless, because of the criminal nature of many autodefensa groups in western Mexico, they have, in their informal incarnation, harmed the rule of law. Moreover, because not all of autodefensa criminal activity was rooted out before the state formalized them, the institutionalization of citizen security carries their threat to western Mexico's rule of law to the present. While the institutionalization of non-criminal autodefensas would effectively replace the region's drug cartels with a non-criminal informal institution, the criminal ties of the autodefensas means that one informal criminal institution is being replaced by another, continuing to undermine the rule of law in the region.

In this sense, citizen security can have diverse forms that either threaten the rule of law, uphold it, or substitute for its absence. Van Cott's Peru is one example of a positive substitute and is more comparable to Mexico's volunteer police forces in indigenous communities across Southern Mexico (2014: 9). However, the autodefensas, note Althaus, are a very different type of self-defense group one that goes far beyond community security to include community control. In the case of Michoacán's autodefensas, what seems to often accompany this control is criminal activity or associations that advance the activities of other criminal groups (2014: 9).

When Michoacán's autodefensas began operating in earnest in early 2013, the international media seized upon the spectacle, causing social media to explode with savory headlines detailing the bizarre scenario of armed citizens taking back their communities, arresting drug bosses and police at free will. At this time, the popular perception of the autodefensas was one of virtuous vigilantes whose ranks were comprised of humble farmers and shopkeepers concerned with the welfare of their community. While this has most often been the case, strong evidence suggests that a large degree of the institution is criminal in nature.

In Michoacán, for example, where the infamous Knights Templar cartel was dominant from 2011 to 2014, one major concern throughout 2013 and 2014 was that some of the autodefensas could be operating to advance the aims of the Templar's rivals. Though many photos of the newly-formed autodefensas depict militia members with rudimentary, dated weapons—the kind one would expect to find among a citizenry where the federal government has long banned most types of weapons—Althaus notes that “the militias were suspiciously well-armed from the start,” commonly seen with high-caliber rifles and sniper rifles so new that much of Mexico's security forces is using older weaponry (Althaus and Dudley, 2014: 10). Surprisingly well-equipped, the militias were quickly associated with rumors that given the unlikelihood of Mexican security forces equipping the militias, the autodefensas were being equipped by the Templar's rival cartel. In January 2014, Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam announced the state had strong evidence that the well-armed militias were receiving arms from the Templar's main rival, the Jalisco Cartel—New Generation (Santana, 2014).

Though the Murillo Karam's assertions are without concrete, publicly-available evidence, other, more recent evidence points to militia-criminal ties. In May 2014, for example, it was discovered that a new cartel known as “The Third Brotherhood” consisted of self-defense force members, particularly Miguel Angel Gallegos, who formed a vigilante group in central Michoacán after a split with Knights Templar operatives (Parkinson, 2014). The criminal nature of other autodefensas has been more subtle as some criminalized groups have opted to avoid more overt involvement in organized crime and drug trafficking in favor of using their autodefensa status to extort profits from local businesses, illustrated when the government detained 40 militia members for extorting royalties from a local mining concession (2013).

Formalizing the Informal: Reigning in an Informal Security Institution

After nearly a year of allowing the autodefensas to operate without a formal legal framework—the major factor in the institutionalization of informal citizen security in the region—the Mexican government in January 2014 moved to reign in militia activity. Under President Pena Nieto's newly-created Commission for Security and Integral Development in Michoacán, the Commission's first major action was to formalize cooperation between the state's militias and the federal and state forces. This integration was achieved by placing the autodefensas in the Rural Defense Corps—a state institution originally formed in the 19th century to control banditry in the countryside more often referred to as the fuerzas rurales (Althaus and Dudley, 2014: 13). Despite being founded on such a formal mechanism, the agreement between the united autodefensas and Castillo was reached on January 27, the government noted that the agreement would be temporary (Castillo and Stevenson, 2014).

Under this agreement, cooperation between the militias and federal forces yielded significant gains in diminishing the Knights Templar's foothold in the state. On the day of the agreement, federal troops captured one of the Templar's top leaders, Dionisio “El Tio” Loya Plancarte. Later, in March, intense militia operations in the town of Tumbiscatio preceded the death of the Templar's founder, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno Gonzalez. Weeks later, a military operation resulted in the death of another top Templar leader, Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte Solis, though that operation occurred in the state of Queretaro where the militias do not operate. By the end of March, only one of the Templar's top leaders, Silvano “La Tuta” Gomez remained at the head of the severely weakened group, whose life in hiding was recognized to be a direct result from the spread of autodefensas throughout the state (Reed, 2014).

Whereas Peru's rondas campesinas and Bolivia's juntas vecinales operate in areas where the state is absent, Mexico's citizen security forces operate amid a strong and visible state security presence. Thus, the state's formal incorporation of the autodefensas in the midst of what was widely recognized as a complete security failure by the state signaled the further delegitimization of preexisting institutions like local and state police forces. The Mexican state seemed to have recognized this problem, evidenced when on March 31, 2014—just two months after the formal incorporation of the autodefensas into the Rural Defense Corps—Castillo called for the disarmament of the militias, justifying the decision with the assertion that the Knights Templar had largely been defeated (Reed, 2014). With the militias threatening blockades of major highways throughout Michoacán if they were not afforded a more favorable plan for disarmament, a revised deal on April 14, 2014 promised ongoing incorporation into the fuerzas furales while avoiding the call for total disarmament (2014).

“The April 14 agreement highlights the federal government's intent to halt the expansion of vigilante groups in Mexico,” notes Tristan Reed for Forbes, adding that “the challenge to government authority apparently has been deemed greater than the benefits the militias bring of reducing the need for military involvement in the fight against drug-trafficking organizations (Reed, 2014). While the April 14 agreement held that all militias not incorporated into the fuerzas furales after May 11, 2014 would be forcibly disarmed, Reed notes that the April 14 agreement is at best ambiguous, given that it “does not specify just how the militias will be formally integrated into government-controlled security forces” (2014).

In the months following the agreement, the government's still-limited integration of autodefensas into the Rural Defense Corps and its higher emphasis on disarming and arresting unregistered militia leaders indicates the Mexican government's sentiment that it would be more advantageous to do away with the credibility-threatening militias than to use them for further policing. The degree to which the government has integrated armed militia members into the ranks of the fuerzas rurales is alarmingly low, as an investigative piece by Mexico's El Universal reported in late October 2014 that of over five thousand armed militiamen, only one thousand have been legalized in 19 of the 34 municipalities reportedly under autodefensa influence.

With Althaus and Dudley noting at the time of the March 31 announcement that “the government so far has shown little inclination to fold more than a fraction of the militiamen into formal security forces as agreed to in late January,” the move to disarm militias after only incorporating a portion of them into the fuerzas rurales evidences what the two authors call the federal government's “bait and switch” tactic of using the autodefensas as an effective tool against the cartel before seeking to restore the legitimacy of state security forces (Althaus and Dudley, 2014: 13). The bait—the government’s brief co-opting of the autodefensas that resulted in the notable dismantling of the Knights Templar's leadership in early 2014—was followed by an intense campaign to disarm and punish militia members who would not cooperate with the government's order to disarm after May 11, 2014. One of the more notable government mobilizations against the militias came in June 2013 when soldiers and police arrested 83 suspected militia members on charges of carrying unregistered weapons. One of those arrested was Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, an influential founder of one prominent autodefensa who would come to be seen as the face of the collective movement (see Associate Press, 2014).

The Dangers of Informal Security Institutionalization

Despite the strategic benefits reaped from the government's staying out of the fight between the Knights Templar and the autodefensas throughout 2013 and early 2014 before curtailing the influence of citizen militias, autodefensas persist throughout the region and are likely to exist as long as the efforts of the Mexican Army, Federal Police, and Rural Defense Corps have proven unable to bring down Michoacán's unabating levels of violence and crime. With the militias being allowed to freely arm and operate for nearly a year without any significant attempt by the government to curtail their activity, it is no wonder that the militias are unlikely to go away.

The persisting presence of these unincorporated and still-armed autodefensas poses a number of threats to the rule of law. One issue associated with the continuing presence of militias is their decline from a cohesive body to a fragmented body with diverging interests. “The militias have also fractured,” Note Althaus and Dudley, adding that “some militia leaders claim the government has betrayed them and vow to fight it. Others are setting up their own, permanent version of self-defense groups in their communities with or without government support” (Althaus and Dudley, 2014: 3). Regardless their motives, unauthorized autodefensa groups remain a strong presence in the state. Contrary to reports from Alfredo Castillo that assert the virtual disappearance of such unauthorized groups, the Michoacán press has confirmed the continuing presence of the groups up through December 2014, particularly in the state's Tierra Caliente region in which organized crime and violence is most prevalent (Solis, 2014). These groups cite their presence as necessary in the face of continued government ineffectiveness to quell violence, and many once-disarmed groups threaten to return for the same reason defying Alfredo Castillo's repeated declarations of an intention to detain all disarmed militias that remobilize (Diaz, 2014; Castillo, 2014).

That Michoacán's homicide statistics are yet to experience a significant drop could be due in part to the type of ongoing violence between rival autodefensas mentioned by Althaus and Dudley. Hipólito Mora, quoted earlier in this piece and one of the famed initial founders of Michoacán's autodefensa movement, was arrested in March 2014 by state officials for his purported participation in the slaying of two members of another autodefensa faction led by Luis “El Americano” Torres Simon, who would later be exposed as a key operative in the Knights Templar offshoot Los Viagras (see Los Angeles Times, 2014).

Such a rivalry appears to be part of a larger conflict among autodefensas, evidencing that the militias' ranks are not filled with concerned, honest citizens as cartel-like turf wars erupt among armed groups. This became most clear after a December 16, 2014 confrontation between the militias led by Hipólito Mora, by then out of prison, and “El Americano” Torres in the town of La Ruana that killed eleven, including the son of Mora (see Borderland Beat, 2015). Later, on January 6, 2015, nine were killed in a gunfight between armed elements in the town of Apatzingan, the largest city in the Tierra Caliente region (see La Jornada, 2015). Daniel Hernandez writes that such activity represents the efforts of autodefensa leaders seeking to fill the power vacuum left after organized crime was driven out: “As the Knights Templar cartel is further dispersed by the expanding militia movement, the legitimacy of each autodefensa leader becomes a point of contention in the pursuit of stability in Michoacán” (Hernandez and Musielik, 2014).

The problems associated with government's attempt to formalize the autodefensas are not only manifest by the persistence of the type of unsanctioned militias led by Torres or Mora, but are also evident among the already-formalized portion of the government's policy of incorporating and eliminating the militias. First, issues of criminal activity and infiltration among the ranks of the fuerzas rurales is evidence of the government's poorly-planned and regulated revival of the organization. Perhaps seen more as an immediate solution to reigning in the militias, the abrupt revival of the Rural Defense Corps has brought a number of issues.

An increasing stream of news reports in recent months has shown that criminal elements are common outside and inside the ranks of the fuerzas rurales. Reports of “false elements” of the fuerzas abound, and Alfredo Castillo, the government official tasked with overseeing the group in Michoacán, announced in October 2014 that armed individuals use uniforms bearing the security force's name to commit a host of crimes (Alcantara, 2014). Recently, on November 2, nine such false elements were deemed responsible for the assassination of four individuals—all of whom were reported to have had drug trafficking ties—outside of the state capital of Morelia (see Azteca Noticias, 2014). Beyond these false elements, however, the formal ranks of the Rural Defense Corps is reportedly infiltrated by criminal elements, and Castillo has responded to such criticism by saying that “there is no institution that can say it is 100% effective in terms of the behavior of its members” (see Cambio de Michoacan, Oct. 2014). A notable instance of criminal infiltration into the ranks of the fuerzas rurales came in late September 2014, when seven members of the Knights Templar offshoot Los Viagras were reported by a prominent Rural Defense Corps commander to have used their statuses as fuerza members to commit sexual assault, robberies, and to sell confiscated Knights Templar property (Castellanos Enviada, 2014).

Perhaps the most telling tale of the ineffectiveness of the government's strategy of allowing the autodefensas to both informally and formally institutionalize is the fact that a drop in homicides and a significant drop in other major crimes has not accompanied the replacement of the Knights Templar with autodefensas and fuerzas rurales. Comparing the period of Knights Templar dominance in the state (January 2011 to March 2013) to the autodefensa era (April 2013 to September 2014), homicides rise considerably. For example, government statistics reflected a 24% increase in homicides from Templar dominance to autodefensa dominance in the state, recording 1,703 homicides in the 27 months of Knights Templar dominance, compared to 1,488 homicides in just 18 months of autodefensa dominance. The same periods correspond to 488 kidnappings under Templar dominance compared to 251 kidnappings under autodefensa dominance (23% decrease); 625 cases of extortion to 406 cases (2% decrease); and 13,979 cases of auto theft to 9,632 cases (3% increase) (see Secretaría de Gobernación, 2014).

The unabated crime under the continuing presence of unauthorized autodefensas and corrupt elements of the Rural Defense Corps is not the only rule of law issue presented by the partially-formalized institution of citizen security, as the quality of subnational democracy has also been hampered as a new federal entity tasked with overseeing citizen security clashes with state and local government officials over jurisdiction. With the federal Commission for Security and Integral Development in Michoacán taking control of Michoacán's security forces in January 2014, state officials have begun to speak out against what they call the federal governments usurping of their governing power over security matters. One prominent mayor in Michoacán recently lamented that the PRI's elected majority in the state has been hijacked “by a stranger,” referring to Commission head Alfredo Castillo (Márquez, 2014).


Given its strategy of sitting back for nearly a year to allow a well-armed, publicly supported movement institutionalize, the Mexican government's 2014 decision to reign in the state's autodefensas through cooptation and now through a general ban has produced mixed results. On one hand, the government was able to take advantage of an informal security institution's willingness to usurp formal and ineffective security institutions to destabilize the formidable Knights Templar cartel in a way that the state's corrupt and ineffective formal security forces likely could not. On the other hand, the incomplete, corruption-prone process of transforming informal autodefensa members into formal fuerza rural and the persistence of unauthorized militias throughout the state is a major threat to both the Mexican government's security legitimacy and rule of law. One journalist wrote earlier this year that due largely to the actions of the autodefensas, “the Knights Templar cartel looks weaker than ever.” He cautions however, that “whatever happens next in Michoacán will depend on the ability of the federal government to keep the militia movement free of corruption and internal squabbling” (Hernandez and Musielik, 2014).

Unfortunately, Mexico's political and security institutions have proven incapable of overcoming the corruption and disregard to the rule of law that inhibits the rebuilding of its security institutions in order to accomplish the work of security that vigilante citizens have proven willing to do, albeit to equally ineffective outcomes. What the case of Michoacán ultimately provides, then, is an example that the consequences of quickly and incompletely formalizing a security institution that poses a threat to the rule of law outweigh the benefits to the state gained from accepting the institutionalization of a citizen security force that proved capable of destabilizing more threatening enemies of the state. Whereas the federal government's “bait and switch” tactic of using Michoacán's autodefensas as a tool against the Knights Templar before attempting to disarm them has tactical merit, the government—still plagued by corrupt and ineffective security institutions—has so far proven incapable of both disarming the state's autodefensas and filling the state's void in security.

Whereas this study only briefly addresses a case of a detrimental informal security institution and its effects on the rule of law, numerous research-worthy questions remain. First, future studies could discuss the factors that give rise to autodefensas. Because other equally violent states in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have not experienced such a phenomenon in citizen security, it appears unlikely that a weak and ineffective state presence alone gives rise to autodefensas. Thus, this paper only shows that informal institutions of citizen security can arise in the face of weak and ineffective state presence. Why, then, have autodefensas formed in states like Michoacán and Guerrero and not in states like Sinaloa or Tamaulipas, where corruption and the ineffectiveness of state security institutions are issues of equal or greater proportion? Moreover, additional cases of informal citizen security institutions should be identified and compared to the Mexican case and its effects on rule of law, a process that would lead to conclusions regarding the circumstances in which informal security institutions either promote or threaten the rule of law.


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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Michael Hoopes received his MA in Latin American Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2015, where his research focused on the development of the Mexican state’s domestic security policies from the 1970s to the present.