Self-defense groups and their critics

[ Photo: Juan José Estrada Serafín ]

By Scott Campbell

Since mid-January, when armed self-defense groups launched an offensive against the Knights Templar cartel in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, Mexico, much ink has been spilled evaluating the pros and cons of the self-defense movement. Critiques and speculations have been leveled from the left and right, yet what has largely been absent is an appreciation for the events in situ.

From the right (including the government and mass media), the self-defense groups have been labelled as vigilantes, taking the law into their own hands, armed by an opposing cartel, and threatening to turn into paramilitary death squads a la the AUC in Colombia. Such meritless talking points are not of concern here.

What is of concern is the predominant response from the left, where the self-defense groups have received a lukewarm reception at best. Held at arm’s length, the self-defense movement is chastened for not being like the autonomous municipality of Cherán in Michoacán or the CRAC community police in Guerrero. For not being indigenous, for not having a comprehensive platform, or for cooperating with the government. From behind computer screens, those who are dodging the bullets of the Knights Templar (and occasionally of the state) are patronizingly told what they are not and what they should be doing.

Fortunately for the self-defense groups, they did not wait for nor did they petition the support of the left. For years, communities in the Tierra Caliente have faced murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and terror at the hands of the Knights Templar cartel, which operated with impunity in the region. Faced with state inaction, or complicity, toward the cartel, the communities decided, via assemblies, to form self-defense groups. Emerging from these community assemblies, they can only be considered legitimate manifestations of the people’s will. The inclusion of landowners and businesspeople in the self-defense groups does not negate their popular origin, as all members of the community were targets of the cartel’s actions.

Similarly, the sole goal of ridding Michoacán of organized crime does not make them unworthy of support. Perhaps they are not, as armed formations, environmentalist, anti-capitalist or anti-authoritarian, though many among their ranks may be so. The focus on the cartels is clearly understandable, as it is the cartels who are the main impediment to a life with dignity for these communities. The focus on the Knights Templar specifically, as opposed to other cartels, is likewise easily comprehensible. Far from it meaning that the self-defense groups are armed and financed by rival cartels, it is simply the fact that it is the Knights Templar terrorizing the Tierra Caliente, so naturally they would be the primary target of groups originating from the Tierra Caliente. In numerous interviews, self-defense spokespeople have indicated their groups’ opposition to all organized crime operating in Michoacán and in Mexico.

That the groups are not like Cherán or the CRAC is also a misguided critique. Part of it is based on the fact that the self-defense groups are not wholly indigenous and not wholly rural. Instead of embracing the emergence of urban, mestizo self-organization, somehow this is held up as a point of criticism. Such a perspective is indigenist in the extreme, and a denial of agency based on ethnicity and locality. An oppressed people have the right to organize and rise up, regardless of that group’s composition, and regardless of if it mimics the predominant model of armed formations in Mexico. Finally, many participants are indigenous, it is just not the primary focus of the organization.

Also held up as a distinguishing factor is that the self-defense groups, unlike Cherán or the CRAC, cooperate with the police and army. This is both true and false. Yes, the self-defense groups have agreed to be integrated into the state’s forces. At the same time, the groups have previously shown their willingness to act in opposition to the state, which is precisely what brought so much focus of the plight of the Tierra Caliente and pushed the state into acting against the Knights Templar. Some may critique the move as naïve, but if the main goal is to rid the area of organized crime, the groups remain empowered to do so, and remain armed. The agreement can be seen as a tactical move to achieve their goal. If it becomes a hindrance to doing so, there is no evidence that the groups would not break with the state and pursue their objectives on their own yet again.

Cooperation with state forces, no matter how objectionable, is common to the self-defense groups, Cherán and the CRAC, blurring the lines of any criticism which uses state cooperation as the standard for support or not. Cherán has invited both the Federal Police and the military to set up bases near their community to aid in fending off organized crime. The CRAC recently joined with a rival organization, UPOEG, and became a state-approved formation. Whether this is good or bad is another matter. The point is that the issue is not so cut and dry when it comes to the relationship of the state with self-organized armed groups and communities in Mexico.

The crux of the situation is that the self-defense groups should be evaluated on what they are, not what one would wish them to be or what one would desire they do. And what they are is an authentic people’s movement organized against an oppressive force. To hold them to a standard of purity not even existent among the movements they are critiqued against and held up to is not only intellectually dishonest but also unconstructive. Evaluated based on their own process of formation, their proposals and their actions, the self-defense groups have not given cause to merit recrimination. Ultimately, they will act regardless of what those of us from afar say or write about them. The minimum they deserve is a disinterested, fair evaluation.

This post is also available in: Spanish