Pubdate: Wed, 29 Jan 2014
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2014 The Arizona Republic
Author: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press
Page: A1


MEXICO CITY (AP) - After months of tacit cooperation with rural
vigilantes trying to drive out a cultlike 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 semiautomatic rifles under army command. The Mexican military
has a century-old tradition of mobilizing "rural defense corps" manned
by peasants to fight bandits and uprisings in the countryside.

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 pseudoreligious drug cartel, the Knights
Templar, which Mexican authorities had been unwilling or unable to
take on for years.

Over the last 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

But in other parts of Latin America, the news stirred traumatic

Claudia Samayoa, a human rights activist in Guatemala, said the
thousands of deaths attributed to the army-backed Peasant Self Defense
Patrols during the country's 1960-1996 civil war are too fresh to
allow for more paramilitary forces in the region.

"The cure is going to be worse than the disease," Samayoa said. "It
would be better not to go down that road, and instead strengthen law
enforcement and the justice and public-safety systems."

Margarita Solano, of the U.S. risk-analysis firm Southern Pulse, said
Mexico's vigilantes have awakened memories of her native Colombia's
experience with self-defense forces such as the "Convivir" movement
that fought leftist rebels in the 1990s. While the groups were
initially welcomed, some were later accused of rights abuses.

"I'm finding differences and certain similarities that are
frightening," Solano said.

Mexican authorities are portraying the legalization of the
"self-defense" forces as a stopgap measure. Unable to disarm the
vigilantes because of the popular support they have for kicking the
Knights Templar out of much of the state, federal officials will now
have to work with them to clean up the rest of the gang - and then
persuade the vigilantes to demobilize. The government has stressed the
plan is temporary, and says vigilantes will have to register their

With self-defense checkpoints on most major roads in Michoacan's hot
lands, and armed vigilantes often drinking beer or smoking marijuana
at their posts, there are ample possibilities for abuses.

But many Mexicans are less concerned than outsiders about the
potential for wrongdoing by the vigilantes. They note there are
fundamental differences between Michoacan, where relatively prosperous
farmers are funding the vigilantes to fight cartel extortions, and
Guatemala, Colombia and Peru, where poor farmers were pressed by
right-wing governments into fighting bitter wars against leftist rebels.

In the rich, flat lands of Michoacan, "there aren't any leftist
guerrillas or poor farmers," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at
Mexico's National Autonomous University. "Here there are well-off
farmers fighting criminals."

Unlike the vigilante movement in the neighboring Mexico state of
Guerrero, where "self-defense" forces are often anti-government, many
of Michoacan's vigilantes say they just want to get back the rich
pasture and lime groves that the Knights Templar stole from them.

It is a mixed movement, in which upper-middle-class orchard owners,
ranchers and businessmen often pay farmworkers to man defense patrols
and buy them guns. But the poor were also affected by the cartel's
extortions and abuses, and have often have reasons of their own to
join the movement.

"The comparisons with Colombia, Peru or Guatemala are an aberration,"
Benitez said. "Right now, the 'self-defense' forces need the respect
of the local residents and public opinion, so I think they are not
going to commit any crimes now."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt