Mexico Legalizes Vigilantes

October 20, 2016

Earlier this week, the Mexican government announced the legalization of growing vigilante groups. The government came to an agreement with the vigilante groups to integrate into the already existing quasi-military groups named the Rural Defense Corps. These self-defense groups, mainly focused on fighting back against drug cartels and a corrupt police force, have reached nearly 20,000. The announcement of the agreement came on the heels of the news of the capture of a top leader of the drug cartel the Knights Templar. The vigilante groups in the state of Michoacán have been fighting against the Knights Templar for the past year. These self-defense groups, consisting of mostly farmers, ranchers, and sometimes professionals, formed and grew to fight the cartel after police and military failed to stop  growing extortion and violence in their towns. The legalization of these groups helps president Enrique Peña Nieto, whose efforts to add police and military to the region have seemingly done nothing to stop the cartels.

In much of Michoacán, the police and military already tolerate, respect, and even work with the armed civilian groups. However, in order for the groups to become legal they must register their weapons with the army, submit a list of members to the Defense Department, and agree to be supervised by the military. In return, the military will provide “all the means for communications, operations, and movement.” Vigilante leaders gathered Monday to discuss the possible implications and the possibility of salaries paid by the army. Overall, they are expected to accept the proposal but first will want various aspects to be defined more clearly. One vigilante leader, Hipolito Mora, said the agreement would also allow for qualified vigilante members to join the local police force. Mora claimed, "The majority of us want to get into the police [...] I never imagined myself dressed as a policeman, but the situation is driving me to put on a uniform." Despite the support for the legalization of these groups, many leaders are concerned about potential blame for rights abuses, which has happened to other quasi-military groups in Guatemala and Colombia.

During the early hours of Monday, Dionicio Loya Plancarte or “El Tio” was captured in Michoacán without a single shot fired. Wanted for drug, trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering charges, the reward for the capture of Loya Plancarte had grown to 30 million pesos (USD $2.25 million). Loya Plancarte has been on Mexico’s most wanted list since the early 2000s for his leadership role in the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar controlled much of Michoacán, demanding extortion payments from businesses, farmers, and workers, before vigilante groups formed and acted. Local and state police as well as the military have been trying to bring peace to the region but the vigilantes have refused to back down until the cartel’s major leaders are arrested. In 2010 the founder of the Knights Templar, Nazario Moreno, was reported dead by the Mexican government but vigilante leaders say there is evidence he is still alive and operating. Following his “death,” in a show of wealth and power, recently arrested Loya Plancarte reportedly led a procession to a shrine for Nazario Moreno before his capture. Along the route, Loya Plancarte and his subordinates handed out 500 peso bills (USD $37) to others in attendance. Ramon Contreras, an activist in the first vigilante group to form to fight the Knights Templar in the town of La Ruana, said the arrest of Loya Plancarte is significant but maintained the vigilantes would continue fighting until all top cartel bosses are behind bars.

About Author(s)

Kelcey Hadden-Leggett
Kelcey Hadden-Leggett is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in Spanish, a Certificate in Latin American Studies, and a related area Certificate in Portuguese. She recently completed the Pitt in Ecuador program in the Amazon.