Since January 13, Michoacán has been the most pressing national issue for President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the most talked about problem for the international media. The autodefensas group- commonly known as vigilantes- within the state created strong momentum in favor of fighting and eradicating the control that the powerful drug cartel, the Knights Templar, has over the Michoacán valley. With their help, federal police forces sent by interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, have detained around 100 suspects and two prominent leaders of the illegal organization. On January 27, the Mexican government reached a deal with the vigilantes group to incorporate them into an official security force, the Rural Defense Groups. 

This is indeed a logical short-term solution: the government maintains the strong momentum against drug cartels while the vigilantes keep their arms and their objective. However, several human rights, training, and expansionist risks must be taken into consideration. Peña Nieto must be very careful when granting these vigilantes a compromise.

Vigilante groups are, by definition, a self-appointed group that has taken law enforcement capabilities into its own hands. It is important to bear this in mind when talking about these types of groups in Latin America. There are terrible stories related to government-backed vigilante forces in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, and others. Truth be told, the Mexican government had this one coming. The creation of the vigilantes in Michoacán is the government’s own fault for not ensuring appropriate security measures in this state, hence allowing drug operations to proliferate freely in the area. To this day, the Knights Templar remain the biggest producers of methamphetamines in the country.

There are three important outcomes to take in consideration in this issue. First, the Mexican government needs to effectively train the vigilantes in human rights and rule of law procedures.  The vigilantes that have been fighting in Michoacán are formed by individuals of different social classes, among them avocado and lime farmers that were robbed of their land by the drug cartel. These individuals are driven by a sense of justice, but also motivated by retaliation against the Knights Templar.  Apprehension of suspects could turn into human rights abuses if vigilantes are not properly trained. For instance, from 1970 to the early 90s, the “Contras” government-backed movement in Nicaragua orchestrated many atrocities against civilians and political prisoners.

Nonetheless, it seems like the Mexican government is ready for this challenge. Mexico has a long history of rural defense groups, dating to 1964, which are trained by military officers in regards to moral and civic duties. Article 36,  of the 2011 ‘Internal Rules of the National Defense Ministry’, says that the General Direction of the Rural Defenses must “elaborate and propose instructional civic programs to increase the moral and personal knowledge of the Rural defenses”. Second, Peña Nieto needs to implement training exercises to 20,000—and counting—vigilantes which could be a daunting task for the government. Clear evidence of the importance of this vigilante movement is the fast-spreading force that it has gained. Some accounts estimate that there are self-defense groups in approximately 68 counties in 13 states around Mexico. This rapidly growing force would need appropriate training and equipment, and on top of that, a constant evaluation to ensure they do not have links to criminal organizations.  However, the government might lack the ability to provide these services. Take for instance the problems that Peña Nieto’s administration had with implementing a thorough police evaluation last year. National police officers in every state needed to complete an evaluation by October 2013, but failed miserably in doing so. Even though police evaluations started in 2008, only 60 percent of the national police force was evaluated. Michoacán was among the worst 10 states in terms of these tests.   

Lastly, the Mexican government should take this opportunity to seriously diminish the power of the Knights Templar. The motivation generated by the vigilantes should give the government a greater impetus to eliminate this criminal group.   This action would not only improve Mexico’s national security, but it would also have a direct impact on drug related issues in the United Sates. Less than a year ago, the Knights were the major producers of methamphetamines exported to the US, a fact that undoubtedly has given this cartel the power and outreach of a true transnational criminal organization. Some major steps have been already taken towards this goal. On Monday, January 20th, the government captured Jesus “El Toro” Velazquez, one of the seven leaders of the drug cartel.  In addition, on January 27th, Dionicio Loya Plancarte, alias “El Tio”, was captured by federal forces.

The Peña Nieto administration needs to take this opportunity as a prominent example of the lack of security that many regions in Mexico are suffering. Many previous national security strategies have failed, and Peña Nieto needs to bring a new security direction that can actually succeed.  Let this example of the vigilantes fighting a drug cartel serve as a model of a society that is virtually fed-up with federal mediocrity. Let this situation be also a springboard for change, meaningful, lasting change.