Vigilantes Mexico
Leaders and members of community police, or vigilantes, march to commemorate the first anniversary of the group's foundation in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, in violence-ridden Michoacán, Mexico. Reuters/Edgard Garrido

MEXICO CITY -- “Si quieres algo bien hecho, lo tienes que hacer tú mismo.” For the last year, the popular Spanish phrase -- “if you want a thing done right, do it yourself” -- has applied in the Mexican state of Michoacán to something unusual: policing. Tired of the violent control exerted by the Knights Templar drug cartel, and by the authorities’ inaction, the population of this western region of Mexico took up arms and organized informal defense groups to protect businesses, homes and families.

This situation, in which the failure of institutional justice to protect a community prompts residents to take matters into their own hands, is not exclusive to Mexico. “Justicia popular,” or mob justice, is on the rise throughout Latin America, whether it be as armed vigilantes like in Mexico, or lynching attacks, like in Argentina and Bolivia.

“[Mob justice] is a reflection of a society that is totally fed up with the levels of crime,” Luis Somoza, an Argentinean expert on security policies, told press agency IPS.

“People have the perception that the state isn’t protecting them, whether or not that is real,” he added.

For Michoacán resident José Manuel Mireles, moral leader of the autodefensas, there was no doubt that the Mexican state had left them adrift.

“There are good intentions from the federal administration, but the government has hindered more than helped,” he said in a televised interview last February.

Mireles, who is a surgeon by profession, explained how vigilantes are skeptical every time the government says they have captured a cartel kingpin. “We personally know the traffickers, and we have been seeing for years how the government takes any drunk and announces it as if they had taken down the cocaine king of Mexico,” he said. “We are just not convinced until we see proof.”

The Knights have been operating in Michoacán since 2011, when they were born from the remnants of legendary drug-trafficking group La Familia. The local community buckled under their reign of terror and complied with their political demands and economic extortion. The Mexican government mostly turned a blind eye to the situation, but by early 2013, the residents had had enough.

“We will not be in peace until they fall,” Mireles declared. “And if nobody else will make them fall, then we will.”

True to these words, the Michoacán community organized defense groups and patrolled the streets armed with hunting rifles. During the following 12 months, the state turned into a battleground. The government declared state of emergency, and sent the army along with police. The vigilantes did not fight off the official forces, but did not give up the fight either.

Since February 2014, the federal government changed tactics. President Enrique Peña Nieto tried several methods to defuse tensions, from investing in local social services to attempting a shutdown of the cartel economically. His administration is also demanding that, on May 10, self-defense groups will have to be absorbed into the police force or disappear altogether.

“We are opening the way for the citizens of the organized defense groups to join the new rural police body and protect their community within the law,” read the statement, signed by Michoacán's safety commissioner, Alfredo Castillo.

Castillo, who is politically and personally close to Peña Nieto, has said since the beginning of the conflict that he considered vigilantes his allies. He never considered them criminals, as many in the Mexican political and media elite have.

It took three long months, but Castillo managed to convince other Mexican officials that the vigilantes would be an invaluable help in bringing down the Knights.

The integration decision was made public after a meeting between representatives from the self-defense groups and the government. Estanislao Beltrán, a spokesman for the vigilantes, said the meeting had been “the most satisfactory we ever had,” and added that the autodefensas were not going to disappear.

“We never talked about leaving the fight. We are going to join the legal scheme as a group,” he said in the press conference held on Wednesday after the meeting. “Those who individually decide not to operate within the law, those people will be the ones forced to hand in their guns to the authorities.”

According to Beltrán, the plan is that every vigilante become a new rural policeman in his own right. They will have to register and declare every weapon they own within what is established by law. “We have not specified yet what kind of guns the vigilantes will be entitled to, but it is clear that we need to be armed if we are to fight organized crime,” he said.

Operations related to drug trafficking and cartels account for 51 percent of the total number of crimes in Mexico, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

Mexico, the second-largest economy in Latin America, is considered one of the most dangerous nations in the world. Its murder rate -- 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 – is the 26th highest in the world, according to the United Nations Office for Crime And Drugs (UNOCD).

In other Latin American countries where organized crime is less prevalent, mob justice has focused on other types of offenses. In most cases, the spike in mob attacks do not help reduce crime, but showcases how fragile official institutions are.

Bolivia is a particularly apt example. Since President Evo Morales took charge in 2006, lynching attacks have risen sharply: in 2013 there were 70 cases reported to authorities, as opposed to 64 between 2002 and 2003, according to figures of Bolivia’s official human rights watchdog. However, the actual numbers could be much higher, as no independent organization tracks lynching.

For the Bolivian ombudsman office, this increase is the result of the deep crisis of the country's judicial system. The UN reported in 2013 that a lack of judges and courts in most of the country prompts residents to take matters in their own hands.

Bolivia has the fourth-lowest murder rate in Latin America: 9 per 100,000 inhabitants. However, the rate has grown since 2011, when it stood at 7 murders per 100,000 residents. More worrying is the rate of minor offenses, like theft and robbery, which rated 86 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Despite the slight rise in crime, justice officials continue to be scarce in Bolivia. In 2012, there were only seven public defenders –either judges or attorneys – per 100,000 inhabitants in Bolivia, according to the Inter-American Association of Public Defenders – a tiny number compared to the 305 in Argentina. More staggering is the distribution of the meager amount of justice officials: almost 45 percent of Bolivian provinces have no judge at all.

“This matter has to be addressed from the base. Bolivian justice needs a better distribution of the justice system, and a sociological study of what makes Bolivians so [suseptible to] violent reactions,” Waldo Albarracín, a former omdbudsman, told the Argentinean newspaper La Nación.

Some international experts and the Bolivian opposition have pointed to the 2009 Constitution as a reason behind the growth of mob justice. Prompted by Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, the document indigenous people, who make up 62 percent of the population, the right to practice justice in their own traditional ways, outside of the general legal framework of the country.

The only country in Latin America with higher lynching numbers than Bolivia is Guatemala, which is also more than 60 percent indigenous. In 2013 alone, Guatemala had almost 500 cases of lynching attacks, including 47 deaths, according to the country’s human-rights prosecutor’s office. The Guatemalan Constitution of 1985 also recognizes the right to indigenous people to exert their own traditional forms of justice.

Guatemala is routinely named one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America, ranking at No. 4, with a murder rate of 38 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012. The theft rate, on the other hand, ranks at 67 per 100,000 people, lower than Bolivia. In spite of these figures, Guatemala has barely two judges per 100,000 citizens.

Bolivian anthropologist Xavier Albó denies the correlation. “Lynching attacks and indigenous justice have nothing to do with each other. They are often mistaken, but they cannot be interchanged,” he wrote in a paper on the subject.

Albó pointed out that the Bolivian Constitution also limits the field of action of indigenous justice, and leaving out rape, homicide, manslaughter and trafficking in all its forms. Similar limitations are also listed in the Guatemalan Constitution. These types of crimes are, incidentally, most often the targets of mob justice.

It is not unusual for communal anger to be directed towards the wrong people. Such was the case of Israel Jesús Colque, who in late 2011 was beaten to death by residents of the town of Viacha who believed him to be a thief. Colque had no opportunity to defend himself, since the 25-year-old was deaf-mute, as reported in La Razón, a local newspaper.

Another heart-wrenching case, reported by La Paz-based newspaper El Deber in October 2013, is that of 54-year-old Jesús Moreno, a cemetery-maintenance worker from the Santa Cruz region in eastern Bolivia who was mistaken for a grave robber by five residents. Moreno was declared dead on arrival at the hospital. The perpetrators, who were arrested, offered to pay the family the equivalent to $1,000 to beg for forgiveness and drop of the charges. The case is still pending resolution.

In these situations, there is not much the official justice system can do. “There is a code of silence in the community. Many people are involved, and once the lynching is over, everyone disappears,” Fredy Torrico, a public prosecutor for Cochabamba, explained to GlobalPost.

“The whole community becomes complicit through silence. It is very hard to break through, and usually there is no sanction,” he added.

Even countries with stronger legal systems are unsure how to deal with mob justice. Argentina, even with the third-lowest murder rate in Latin America, has been experiencing a wave of lynching attacks that the government has been unable to control.

The case that put President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the lookout was a recent lynching in the city of Rosario. On March 22, 18-year-old David Moreira was caught by residents right after he took a woman’s purse. He was beaten up in the center of the town and died three days later in the hospital.

His mother, Lorena Torres, addressed the town through the local newspaper La Capital, with a simple phrase: “If you thought my son had committed a crime, you should have taken him to the police.”

Despite having one of the lowest crime rates on the continent, Argentina is the Latin American country with the highest rate of theft, with 973 per 100,000, according to the UN. Mexico is a close second, with 688 thefts, and Brazil is third, with 572.

Insecurity in their country is listed by Argentineans as their biggest concern, even more than a sky-high inflation rate.

The most worrying part of this spread of mob justice is that lynching does not dissuade crime. As Fernández de Kirchner said on March 31, “any violent act will always, always engender more violence” – and only official action will make it stop.