The rise of militias in Mexico: Citizens’ security or further conflict escalation?

In this article, originally published by the Center for Complex Operations’ journal PRISM, in its volume 5, no. 4 issue, “The Changing Western Hemisphere,” Vanda Felbab-Brown explores the security and political effects of the anti-drug-cartel militia forces that emerged in Mexico after 2006 in reaction to violent organized crime, most prominently in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero. Their formation, she explains, is an expression of both the absence of the state and its continual rejection by locals who find it remote, irrelevant, undependable, or outright corrupt. However, the formation of the militias has been co-opted by organized crime groups. Although the militias seemed to alleviate violence in the initial period, they soon became predatory and abusive themselves. The Mexican government’s original plan to fold the militias into the Rural Defense Corps was the least bad option, says Felbab-Brown; however, the government has failed to effectively enforce the policy with the militias. In Guerrero, the government has not even been able to convince them to sign any deal. In both Michoacán and Guerrero, many of the militias have become important sources of conflict and abuse, hardly acting as a stabilizing force. Indeed, argues Felbab-Brown, the Mexican government needs to retain the resolve to monitor the militias diligently; prosecute those who engage in criminal acts, such as extortion and murders; and use any opportunity it can to roll them back and dismantle them—even if such efforts have not been going well so far. Overall, Felbab-Brown explains that partnering with militias might seem like a seductive option in the short term at a moment of crisis, but spells long-term problems for security, rule of law, and state legitimacy, as much in Mexico as in Colombia or Afghanistan. To the extent that Mexico’s struggle against criminality is not merely about reshuffling who has control and power in the criminal market, but about a broader extension and deepening of the rule of law and accountability in Mexico, any official endorsement of the militias thus fundamentally contradicts that project, she writes.