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A double-edged sword

By RAÚL BENOIT

Are self-defense groups a grassroots solution for curtailing organized crime? Who controls these paramilitary groups? Who will be in charge of keeping them to their original purpose? Are self-defense groups a double-edged sword?

Are self-defense groups a grassroots solution for curtailing organized crime? Who controls these paramilitary groups? Who will be in charge of keeping them to their original purpose? Are self-defense groups a double-edged sword?

Self-defense combatants at warpath.

That is how it began 18 years ago in the state of Guerrero, with a paramilitary force that assumed the responsibility for policing their towns. Their leaders became judges who punished crimes and even resolved family conflicts and marital rifts. At that time they began to be called the Regional Coordinator of Community Authority (Crac) and for years they operated legally.

What many did not predict was that the paramilitary force many years later, under pressure by powerful drug-trafficking groups, would transform into what in Mexico today is known as self-defense groups.

In the country as in cities, farmers, cattlemen, businessmen, and miners declared they were being crushed by extortions, kidnappings, and the collection of illegal taxes.

Nevertheless, none of their leaders want to mention that in many of those same areas there are large expanses of marijuana and poppy—from which heroin is made—and that those states are used for the turnover of drugs.

In February 2013 those enthusiastic community police announced the creation of the self-defense groups, and they have multiplied ever since. They now resemble small armies that instead of standing in defense operate offensively, intimidating such groups of drug traffickers as the Familia Michoacana and the Sinaloa cartel, but especially the Caballeros Templarios.

With insecurity in the town, many michoacans decided to grab hold of weapons and defend themselves.

There have been bloody battles between them that have left dozens dead. Last year, the self-defense groups even confronted federal forces.

This past January 27, self-defense groups were legalized by the Mexican government. By signing an agreement to register their members and listing their weapons, they became established as rural police just like that. A feature of civil defense contemplated in Mexican law.

Since then they have reestablished peace in 23 of the 113 municipalities in the state of Michoacan. With its most recent decision, the government has endorsed them, permitting what many consider a dangerous liaison with federal forces and the army. In addition, the government has hinted it would be willing to enter into a process of regulating the self-defense groups.

President Enrique Peña Nieto himself has said that the state would be willing to give a chance to anyone who has organized in a legitimate way to defend against organized crime.

At present it is estimated that the self-defense groups of Michoacan and Guerrero have close to 20,000 men and the phenomenon has already extended over 11 states, most recently to the outskirts of Mexico City.

The Self-defense of Michoacan found support in many sectors of the area.

Many of the new self-defense group members were old fighters from the Caballeros Templarios and other criminal fronts for drug trafficking who fled because of fear or tired of their illegal activities.

Many wonder where their weaponry comes from. Few can know for certain whether behind these armed squadrons hide rival drug cartels providing arms to self-defense groups.

Although right now the self-defense groups are receiving the indirect blessing of the government, skeptics fear these armed commandos will get out of control and become dangerous criminal gangs. Just as it happened in Colombia, where paramilitaries joined forces with the drug cartels, which increased the violence and private armies with criminal intent proliferated.

The question many are asking themselves is: Why must the state turn to paramilitary groups to fight organized crime?