As the drug cartel violence increased in Mexico, many Mexicans felt that the state was not responded effectively enough, and took up arms in rural self-defense organizations (autodefensas) to fight the cartels themselves. And now the Mexican government has given them legal recognition.
They have had some successes so far, including recently besting the Knights Templar, a powerful cartel and killing one of the cartel’s leaders.
This kind of community policing is not unheard of in Mexico; in 2011, the citizens of the town of Cherán actually expelled their local police force, took their weapons, and took over their duties to protect the town again violent illegal loggers.
But that does not mitigate the many problems posed by these groups, which can pose a danger to their communities on multiple levels.
The most obvious one is that while some of these groups may have gotten some kind of training from a former soldier or police officer, it is not standardized and there is no way of knowing how rigorous any such training might be, not even basic things like “when possible, prioritize detaining/arresting suspects instead of killing them.” And as we saw in the case of the confrontation with the Knights Templar, they have killed people.
There are risks of killing someone innocent. Beyond that, there is the fact that not every crime carries a death penalty, and it can still be wrong to kill someone who is guilty.
Part of the problem with Mexico’s formal police is not just the question of whether or not they are competent, but which ones are corrupt. While with corrupt police officers there may be some recourse to try and get them fired, there is nothing of the sort for autodefensas.
Some experts also worry that this will escalate the violence into a true civil war.
Finally, I have to say it doesn’t bode well that the Knights Templar, one of the biggest cartels in Mexico, is a splinter group from the Familia Michoacana, which also got its start as a self-defense organization.