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Whither Mexico?

March 13, 2014 @ 5:45 pm 7:30 pm

Forum hosted by CISRUL

on Thursday 13 March 5.45 – 7.30 pm


In 2013 Mexico signed into law an important though controversial set of structural reforms, one of which opens the way for foreign companies to profit from Mexico’s oil holdings. Articles in magazines such as The Economist have lauded Mexico’s reforms, and economist Jim O’Neill tipped Mexico as one of the MINT countries to follow hard on the heels of the BRIC countries. Yet the same Mexican government is struggling to contain armed uprisings of self-defence (autodefensa) or vigilante groups, which target the mafia organisations that the government has been unable to dismantle, despite declaring in 2006 a “war on drug trafficking”. The situation bears comparison to Mexico twenty years ago when President Salinas signed NAFTA, auguring Mexico’s entry into the First World, on the day that the Zapatistas rose up in arms.

The forum sought to set the autodefensa (self-defence or vigilante) groups in the broader Mexican context, asking for example:

  • How the autodefensas are related to other armed groups in Mexico, including the “community police forces” (usually indigenous), guerrilla groups such as the Ejército Popular Revolucionario in the state of Guerrero, paramilitary groups like Paz y Justicia in Chiapas, private security firms (which have multiplied in recent years), Mexican law enforcement and security forces (including the Rural Defence Corps into which some autodefensas are now being incorporated), and the mafia groups themselves (not only are the mafia accused of financing or infiltrating the vigilantes, but ex-mafia members have joined the autodefensas).
  • How the autodefensas movement fit into the past, present and future of Mexican politics. Are the autodefensas a novelty in Mexico, or do they resemble groups such as the “rural guards” of the Mexican Revolution? While struggling against the mafias, what posture do the autodefensas take toward local, state and federal government, and how has government responded to them? Is there evidence of links between political parties and autodefensas (as well as mafias)?  What is the immediate political fallout of the autodefensas uprisings, and what might be the long-term consequences? Here it is important to ask not just whether the autodefensas might continue spreading to other states, but whether they might expand their agenda beyond security to include broader social and political concerns.
  • How best to understand the apparent paradox of an armed uprising at the moment when Mexico seems poised to enter the First World, with promising growth and the passing of structural reforms. Is the conflict a distraction from the real story of Mexico’s bright economic prospects? Or can it shed light on the nature of Mexico’s economy as well as the international context? Analysts such as John Gledhill (University of Manchester) have linked the rise of mafias to, on the one hand, the collapse of peasant production in the face of agro-industry and US agricultural policy, and on the other hand to infrastructural developments that facilitate illicit as well as licit global trade. There are more direct links: for example, the mafia has been taxing exports of iron ore to China, HSBC was fined a record $1.9 billion in 2012 for laundering cartel money, and an ex-state prosecutor has claimed that 85% of businesses in the state of Michoacán have some links to the mafia. And could the conflict – including the issues of corruption and extortion that it targets – threaten Mexico’s growth?
  • How the conflict fits into not just the national but the international context. To begin with, some autodefensas have strong ties to the US. The Washington Post claimed recently, for example, that a significant proportion of the autodefensa members are returned or deported migrants. Social media have played an important role in the conflict, and it appears that the Facebook page Valor por Michoacán, a focal point for the autodefensas and their supporters, is managed from the US. The mafias are all involved in smuggling people  and goods to the US, as well as arms, goods and money back from the US, while distributing drugs and laundering money in the US. US security services have long been involved in trying to police mafias in Mexico, which has often given rise to tensions with Mexican forces.

Summary of presentations

Peter Watt (U Sheffield) co-author of Drug War Mexico

Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) founded in 1929 (under different name) brought together socialist, agrarian, anarchist and other forces, going on to govern for longer than any other political party in history, and although it lost the presidency in 2000, it retained power in many parts of the country, which helps to explain how it won back the presidency in 2012.

  • PRI developed a corrupt political and economic system, but it combined this with progressive measures, especially in 1930s, that mitigated the worst excesses of capitalism to be found in other areas of Central America and Caribbean, and it inscribed these in the 1917 Constitution, even if this remained largely on paper
  • The PRI’s political legitimacy crumbled only gradually in last decades of 20th century, rather than vanishing overnight as was the case of the military regimes of Brazil, Chile Argentina and other Latin American countries.
  • Although 2000 saw the advent of political democracy, i.e. electoral competition, it did not see economic democracy – the main 3 political parties represent similar economic interests, such that it is hard for voters to choose between them.
  • Government continues to use its influence over television media, which substitutes spectacle for debate, to control the population, but there is still widespread cynicism about government.

What is role on war on drugs in this?

  • President Calderón effectively declared a war on drugs in 2006, which has led to the militarisation of the country, bringing about around 100,000 murders and 30,000 missing people in the years since then – this is a higher homicide rate than in countries whose leaders being charged for war crimes.
  • Whatever the intention of the war on drugs, part of the effect was to help dispel any spirit of rebellion in the country, justifying what is arguably a “war on the people” in terms of reducing addictions and crime, when both have increased dramatically since 2006.

How about the autodefensas?

  • The autodefensas are a response to the evident unwillingness of government to seriously tackle the cartels and to protect the population, effectively abandoning the citizenry.
  • They also reflect the decline in popular legitimacy of the army, brought into fight the war on drugs, in the face of citizens’ experience of abuse as well as the reports of organisations such as Human Rights Watch showing that government forces have committed massive human rights abuses.

Ernst Falko (U Essex) PhD in Sociology, writing on Templar Knights cartel

Conducted fieldwork in 2012 on how organised crime engaged with civilian populations in the Tierra Caliente region of the west-central state of Michoacán, which has seen a major upsurge of autodefensa groups in the past year, as reported in national and international media.

  • He was working mainly with civil society organisations, but then he interviewed members at all levels of the Knights Templar (KT) cartel.

Found in 2012 that the KT were transforming from a mere drug cartel into what he characterised as an “illicit armed actor in pursuit of projects of alternative governance”:

  • Their activities were not merely extractive but also regulative – for example they were controlling price of marihuana and issuing licenses for growing it.
  • They had co-opted government structures such as revenue-raising and local policing, as well as range of organisations including political parties and social movements, and organising public demonstrations against war on drugs.
  • They were working hard to acquire degree of legitimacy, such that civilians would not inform on them – for example:
    • They claimed to act as a shield against “enemies of the people” seeking to loot Michoacan, including corrupt elites, as well as claiming a religious calling (the leader declared himself a Saint) and the mantle of Latin America’s revolutionary tradition (the same leader re-baptised himself as Ernesto Morelos Villa, combining the names of the revolutionaries Che Guevara, Father Morelos and Pancho Villa).
    • They sought to regulate the consumption of crystal meth in the state, while punishing a range of offences from domestic abuse to poor driving by taxis, in diverse ways including public execution.

How did locals respond?

  • Locals did protest, for example, that the KT were recruiting young boys, but at the same time locals commonly said there was no alternative – “if you don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you”.
  • The rise of autodefensas (which occurred after the end of his fieldwork) seems to have been a response to excesses committed by KT members – the KT leader admitted in 2012 that they could not control abuses by their “younger people”
  • However, it is important not to romanticize the autodefensas – some had simply switched sides from the KTs to the autodefensas, for example. He also read out a communication last week from a local informant, who deeply regretted the sight of mainly young people carrying heavy weapons driving past in convoy, complaining that the autodefensas are a “farce” in which the current government is complicit.

Trevor Stack (U Aberdeen) CISRUL Director and anthropologist of Mexico

Cartels are only the most dramatic example of the many kinds of predation that have proliferated in Mexico, including government and the wider business community.

  • Cartels prey on the young people who work for them, on the women whom they prostitute, on undocumented migrants passing through Mexico, on the massive informal sector who are “protected” from government crackdown, and on usually petty businessmen unable to afford protection from the mushrooming private security industry.
  • Officials in local, state and federal government are complicit in these acts of predation, while often preying in their own way on, for example, the street and market traders who make up the informal sector – for example, before the cartels it was state and federal police officers who demanded protection money.
  • What is true of government officials is just as true of supposedly licit, established businesses. Many businesses effectively partner with cartels, especially in the traditionally agricultural areas that have been hardest hit in recent years, most obviously through massive money laundering, which is rarely prosecuted or even detailed in media reports. One of the reasons that businesses partner with cartels is that so many businesses are predatory in their own way.
  • Hence predation is far from the monopoly of cartels, and that the cartels have thrived in good measure because many in government and business across Mexico share their predatory instincts.

Autodefensas, which are now to be found in several states and may well spread further, are just one example of a particular response to predation –group or communities try to protect themselves by declaring some kind of autonomy.

  • Just as the autodefensas expel the local police and instead form an armed militia to defend themselves against the cartels, there are now many groups and communities across the country which declare a measure of “autonomy”, for example in the face of mining (Guerrero, Michoacán) or ranching (Chiapas) interests or in response to the manipulative behaviour in some political parties (Cherán). One could speak of a “thousand autonomies” across Mexico.

Can Mexicans protect themselves from predation by staking out a thousand autonomies? In the case of the autodefensas:

  • On the one hand, it is inspiring that many men and women have taken such risks in the hope of ridding themselves of the most predatory of businesses – the cartels.
  • On the other hand, as a response to predation across government and business:
    • it is hard to believe that autodefensas can be more than a small step
    • they could turn from prey into hunters, especially if they are being sponsored by other cartels – or by licit businesses that are themselves predatory, such as those that are offering “easy” credit to low-income households for the purchase of consumer goods.

How else can Mexicans protect themselves from predatory elements in business and government? There is much talk of “building institutions” and of “legislative reform”, but what is crucial is building a real political will to ensure not just that legislation is designed to limit predation, but also that legislation will be implemented effectively and properly adjudicated:

  • There is little reason to suppose that political parties constitute such a political will at present – not only have they done little or anything to limit predation in the broader business community and by government officials themselves, but they have often been found complicit in the cartels’ extreme predation, for example in the state of Michoacán (as detailed in the previous paper).
  • There are calls for civil society to make its presence felt. However, it is important to be specific about what civil society since it is a vague term and includes many professional NGOs who are too dependent on government contracts to have a critical voice. One important civil society actor and sponsor is the Catholic Church since it has the resources and infrastructure to act independently of government. The Church has played an important role in recent events in Michoacán (as it did in Chiapas in the 1990s) but elsewhere it has arguably avoided confronting the issues.
  • Historically, Mexico has inspired the world with examples of radical political action, including the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution and the 1994 Zapatista rebellion – both of which combined autonomy claims with regional and national agendas. Is it possible in the present day to achieve similar goals by peaceful means?

The broader political question is: what kind of business do citizens accept and indeed welcome?

  • This question needs to be asked not just in relation to the cartels but, for example, in relation to Mexico’s energy sector, for which secondary legislation is being prepared. The political Left has opposed the reform in the name of economic nationalism, but it may be viewed as an opportunity to set a precedent for non-predatory business practices, in a sector which has been massively corrupt and in its own way predatory. If the challenge is not taken up, though, the energy reform could make way for still more predatory practices, of the kind that have been seen across Africa.

Benjamin Smith (U Warwick) historian and writer on contemporary Mexico

During the Independence wars, villages often claimed “neutrality” and set up “self-defence forces”, and during the Mexican Revolution, villages formed fighting units which did not disappear after the Revolution, and indeed were mobilised by President Cardenas to fight for the lands that they wanted.

Many of these historic “self-defence forces”:

  • have been progressive, fighting for land redistribution for example, and have presented themselves as radically autonomous groups
  • but have often been led by unpleasant caciques and have also often defended traditional hierarchies by which, for example, women are subject to “protection” by men.

Some of these tendencies can be observed in the current autodefensa movement in Michoacán – for example, in a recent interview with the autodefensa leader Dr Mireles:

  • on the one hand, Dr Mireles took the egalitarian position that, even though they are mainly white ranchers, they have been inspired by the indigenous peasants of towns like Cherán
  • on the other hand, he took a traditionally moral stance, complaining that the KTs had raped young girls in schools, presenting the autodefensas as men “defending their women”.

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