A Mexican friend of mine argues that there will be nothing but social chaos if the self-defense groups of the Mexican state of Michoacán are allowed to retain their weapons—now symbolized by the plentiful and much photographed AK-47s. In many regards, he is right. After all, how would the U.S. government react if armed citizen militias began to form and openly patrol towns and neighborhoods they considered insecure?
I asked him why the State was not equally as worried before, when the drug mafias ruled freely in Michoacán, and in many other parts of the country, with their extortions, kidnappings and killings—certainly definitions of social chaos.
He returned to his point. The self-defense groups have to be disarmed.
I replied, “Won’t the cartels just sweep in a kill every single one of them, in revenge and to reestablish their reign of terror, and their control?”
“They are breaking the law, the self-defense groups. There have to be laws to prevent social chaos.”
I replied that Mexico has very good laws, exemplary laws—but that the State has failed to enforce them, failed to protect the citizens of Michoacán.
I drew diagrams, I brought in my thin knowledge of Hobbes and Locke, I asked whom the laws were for and where laws came from. I said there was another category, in addition to la ley, the law. There was also el derecho, a person’s rights.
My friend said you had to have laws and they had to be followed in order to have a stable society. I said, in the case where the State does not enforce the laws, then rights had to supersede laws—as in the case of the right to self-defense, not to mention the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
My friend said the laws were there to prevent social violence and, again, chaos.
I argued that chaos already reigned, the moment the State failed in its responsibility to enforce the laws, especially those conceived for the protection of the citizens.
My friend had calmed down. He asked how I would solve the problem. I said I had no solution. The problem, I said, had to do with cultura, the culture of considering the law as something that applies to the other fellow, but not to oneself. Culture, I said, could only change through education. And that that was my position.
In the meantime, if Mexico is to prosper, so investment comes and there are jobs and education, the government must decide who is the enemy in Michoacán: the drug cartels or the self-defense groups? And apply the law equally. And if it can’t do that, then it needs to examine itself and see why it is not enforcing existing law equally.
Some things seem to have changed. It is likely the federal government wants to change the topic away from admission of past failed policies. And so, they say, the mafias are not the real problem; the self-defense groups are. At the same time, to its credit, the government has begun to make arrests of some mayors and some politicians who in fact appear to have been aiding the criminal cartels. It is too early to tell whether this is show or not.
They have also arrested a few self-defense leaders and some of their self-defense foot soldiers, accusing them of murder and putting them in jail. There are complaints that some of the latter have been mistreated and abused by federal police: for example (Proceso): “…evidence of injury around the neck, air pipes, and the inner ear…” of a leader of the self-defense forces in Yurécuaro. Defense lawyers claim the men are being framed, as a way of removing self-defense leadership.
It is also not entirely clear to what extent government is thinking about and making distinctions between the three elements in the triad: the law, individual rights and the underlying culture of impunity. What is needed, of course, is years of education on the merits of social responsibility.
In the midst of all this, ninety percent of the self-defense groups say they have no intention of disarming or being disarmed. At a recent meeting of CAM, the General Council for Self-Defense of Michoacán, self-defense leaders have given the federal government the same deadline the government had given them. Federal Commission Alfredo Castillo had given them May 10 to respond to disarmament demands. CAM has now given him May 10 to respond to their counter-proposals: 1) Legalization of the self-defense groups; 2) Release of self-defense forces imprisoned by the government; and 3) Putting an end to the entire Knights Templar structure in Michoacán.