Most everyone agrees: The only thing worse than killing is being killed. If our lives are threatened, we have the right to defend ourselves, with force if necessary. In a civilized society, that defense is delegated to the state. But not all of us, apparently, live in that kind of civilized society.
Colombia in the 1990s saw the rise of vigilante self-defense groups. In its impotence and desperation at not being able to rapidly win the war against the guerrilla army (which was essentially a drug cartel) and against the drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private army, the state gave the green light to these groups — called Convivir. They were made up of agricultural laborers, trained by soldiers, and financed by landowners and agribusinesses. When they began to extort money from the very businessmen who were financing them, they were declared illegal. But it was already too late. They had become clandestine paramilitary groups, using the same weapons as those they were fighting: kidnapping, murder of innocents, drug trafficking.
What has been going on these last few months in Mexico, in the western state of Michoacán, makes me fear that the same thing is happening there today. “Autodefensas” have organized to drive out the vicious local drug cartel, called the Knights Templar. After first demanding that the vigilantes disband, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has now sanctioned them as part of the Rural Defense Corps — at least nominally under the control of the military.
This is how it happens. The army, with the blessing of the central authorities, looks for an ally, a lesser evil among the local powers. Compared with the cruel and bloodthirsty Knights Templar, the self-defense groups have popular support and are allowed to operate. Meanwhile, the government ignores the fact that some of these vigilantes might be financed by the enemies of the Knights Templar — for example, rival drug gangs or another cartel from the neighboring state of Jalisco. The government allows the vigilantes to act for a while, but when it tries to come back in, the self-defense groups will have turned into a real armed power with whom the government will have to make a pact, for without them the state won’t be able to assert its authority.
Mexico, like several Latin American countries, is able to guarantee security and the rule of law only in certain zones. The lifeblood of law and order manages to flow near the heart of power, around the big cities, but the farther away we get, the weaker the pulse, and in some places there is none at all. Police officers are few and corrupt, judges live under threat from local despots and strongmen, and the legitimate authorities have been paid off by illegal ones. It’s like the American Wild West, but with 21st-century armaments, private armies funded by the torrential flow of money from drug trafficking, and no prospect of a righteous sheriff riding in to restore calm.
Sometimes the United States — which understands itself so well, but badly misunderstands Latin American realities — asks governments of its friendly southern neighbors to wage heroic battles. It asks for elimination of illicit crops, total war on drugs or extermination of guerrilla forces. The most obedient governments ignore what might be real solutions — like cutting off the source of the cartels’ enormous wealth by legalizing drugs — and instead attempt to carry out these requests. They send their national armies to undertake the thankless task of fighting against their own compatriots. That’s what Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s previous president, tried.
But these wars to the death always fail. What they generate is local powers defending themselves by arming to the teeth, and outlying territories turning into battlefields where life is impossible for defenseless civilians. The legitimate economy and tourism disappear, death tolls soar (to around 80,000 in Mexico), and the final winner, inevitably, is not the state but some local narco-dictator with his own army of mercenaries.
This is what we learned in Colombia: When the state is not present, it is local tyrants who take power and brutally impose their rules, which are nothing more than the defense of their privileges. The old Hobbesian concept, that the natural state of mankind is that man is a wolf to man, seems confirmed in these involuntary Latin American anarchist experiments. The strongest and richest wolf (from trafficking drugs or illegal mining) dominates the other wolves.
Of course, every country is different. But I fear that today Mexico is making the same mistake Colombia did a quarter of a century ago. The vigilantes appear to be a cure — they are seen as saviors — but in reality they are part of the illness, one more illegal army, acting without restraints and financed by dirty money.
In Colombia, the self-defense groups were eventually pursued until, in 2003, 25,000 of them were forced to demobilize. Since they were also drug traffickers, a few top paramilitary ringleaders ended up being extradited to the United States. But their legacy persists. Their descendants still live in Colombia and still have power: Now they’re called criminal gangs, and they are still practicing extortion and murder financed by illegal mining and drug money.
The vigilantes might begin by killing kidnappers, drug dealers and extortionists, but soon they begin killing their relatives, and then their friends, or those they think are their friends, and then the friends’ families, until everyone is suspect and they might come knocking at your own door, as happened to us in Colombia — as happened to my own father, when he was gunned down in the streets of Medellín.
To allow private armies, even if they are supposedly for self-defense, is to create a monster like the Hydra: If you cut off one head, two more grow back.
Traducción por Anne McLean