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With the announcement that the Mexican government has reached a deal with vigilante groups in the central state of Michoacán, comparisons are being raised both in and out of country to Colombia’s paramilitary groups that plagued the South American nation in the 1990s and early 21st century.
Mexico’s vigilante groups sprang up about a year ago in Michoacán in an effort to combat the Knights Templar drug cartel operating in the region amid widespread furor over their extortion practices of local businesses and farmers. After a series of bloody gun battles, the vigilantes have seized a number of towns from the cartel and drawn the attention of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who recently sent federal forces to the state to replace the rogue groups.
The announcement on Monday that these self-defense groups have agreed to join government law enforcement forces, however, seems eerily familiar to the situation in Colombia in the early 1990s.
Between 1992 and 1993, the Colombian National Police made contact with the paramilitary group “Los Pepes” – or the “People Persecuted By Pablo Escobar” – to exchange information about the notorious drug lord. While the exchange of information seemed benign enough, it was later revealed that Colombia’s National Police also permitted “Los Pepes” to kidnap and execute people associated with Escobar.
In an article published on the Mexican political website Animal Político, analyst Roberto Arnaud argues that if Mexico doesn’t maintain a pragmatic and consistent approach to handling the vigilantes, the country could risk a situation similar to Colombia. Among these concerns are the emergence of more vigilante groups in other parts of the country, what will happen to the self-defense groups once the cartels have been defeated and what to do about disarmament and demobilization — an issue that proved particularly difficult in Colombia.
“At this point in the crisis, the most viable option is not to remove the self-defense groups, but to offer an institutional arrangement that serves to regulate their interactions with the state,” Arnaud wrote. “History shows that the uncertainty of the Colombian state toward self-defense forces generated huge costs.”
Despite these fears, other observers argue that it is unfair to compare Mexico today with the Colombia of the past, given the differences in the situations and governments.
“What you’re seeing in Mexico with the vigilantes is a response from citizens who are fed up with the drug violence in their towns,” Jason Marczak, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center told Fox News Latino. “In the situation in Colombia, it was the paramilitaries’ reaction to a long-embedded guerrilla insurgency along with the drug traffickers.”
Up until the turn of the century, the Colombian government had major problems dealing with both the paramiitaries and guerrillas in the country’s rural regions. Large swaths of the countryside were controlled by these rogue groups, thanks in part to a weak state, collusion within the National Police Force with the paramilitaries and the rural nature of the fight.
Marczak said that given the mainly urban nature of the vigilante-drug cartel battle and the relative strength of the Mexican government under Enrique Peña Nieto, the country will not become mired in the same situation as Colombia.
“At times local law enforcement may get overwhelmed, but federal forces will not,” he said. “Just look at the cases in places along the border like Juárez, where violence has dropped significantly.”
While the tenuous truce between the government and vigilante forces has been solidified in Michoacán, Mexico has to be wary of the threat of other such groups emerging regions of the country plagued by drug violence and of vigilante groups with ulterior motives, analysts said.
“Having death-squad-like organizations enforcing extralegal justice is something Mexico doesn’t need, and it may well make matters worse,” wrote opinion columnist Raul Gallegos in Bloomberg. “Already, some paramilitary forces have been linked to drug cartels. Plus, vigilante groups can quickly devolve into criminal enterprises, which is what has happened in Colombia.”
If Mexico really wants to combat drug trafficking and make sure the vigilante groups don’t spread to other states besides Michoacán, then they have to continue the economic and political reforms implemented since Peña Nieto took office, Marczak said.
In the last week, Mexico secured $7 billion in new investment from Pepsi, Nestlé and Cisco, and thousands of jobs are also expected to enter the country in the coming years after Peña Nieto signed a sweeping energy reform bill that will allow private companies to drill for oil and gas.
“Many of these guys involved in the drug trade, especially those working on the lower end of the operation, would gladly give it up if they had a better opportunity,” Marczak said. “The best way to fight narco traffickers is putting people into good jobs.”