Mexican armed citizen militias, known as self-defense squads or autodefensas, have mushroomed in early 2014 and led a campaign that has dealt decisive blows against the Knights Templar drug cartel in the state of Michoacán. The vigilantes have changed the dynamic of Mexico’s ongoing drug war. They have proved themselves as a significant third force—alongside government security forces and cartel gunmen—and have shown that powerful cartels can be vulnerable.

Self-defense squads have won important support from residents in Michoacán, in the neighboring state of Guerrero and in migrant communities in the United States.[1] Some see them as a sign of hope following years of cartel violence that ravaged many Mexican towns and villages. Others, however, worry about the rise of these vigilantes, as a significant number of vigilante gunmen have criminal records. In recent months, for example, Mexican police have arrested some vigilantes for crimes including murder.[2] Such arrests feed worries that vigilantism will only inflame more violence, and some fear that the self-defense squads could begin to commit atrocities like the massacres perpetrated by paramilitaries in Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[3] There are also signs of vigilante groups spreading to other parts of Mexico—including close to the U.S. border.

This article examines the roots of the vigilante militias, their cadre, as well as how they arm and organize themselves. It examines the Mexican government’s shifting and sometimes contradictory position on the self-defense squads. It also looks at the future of the vigilantes, and whether these groups will grow and become increasingly dangerous or be a passing phenomenon.

Indigenous Origins
The creation of Mexico’s self-defense squads is closely linked to the growth of indigenous community police forces. Mexico’s millions of indigenous people, who speak languages such as Mixtec and Nahuatl, have carried out a certain amount of self-policing for centuries.[4] In 1995, amid heightened demands for indigenous rights that followed the Zapatista uprising, indigenous activists in Guerrero state formed a network of community police forces, known as the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarios (CRAC), armed with hunting rifles and shotguns.[5]

As drug cartels wreaked increasing havoc in Guerrero in recent years, many indigenous residents turned to the community police, and the CRAC has grown to command more than 1,500 volunteer officers in dozens of villages and small towns.[6] The CRAC not only detains people, but also tries them in village or regional assemblies and imprisons them in community jails.[7]

A Guerrero state law recognized the CRAC as a legal force, but there is fierce debate as to the parameters of this parallel indigenous justice system.[8] The Mexican army has detained CRAC activists for carrying guns outside of their villages, while CRAC supporters have had violent clashes with state police.[9]

In neighboring Michoacán state, some indigenous residents inspired by the CRAC also took up guns against criminals. Most notably, a group of the indigenous Purepecha people in the Cheran municipality armed themselves in 2011 to fight illegal logging and violence from the Knights Templar cartel.[10] Again citing their indigenous rights to self-policing, the Cheran residents constructed barricades made of sandbags to guard the entrances to their town.[11] Such barricades provide an effective defensive position to fend off cartel gunmen and have since been built by the vigilantes across large swathes of Michoacán and Guerrero.

In Guerrero, thousands of vigilantes rose up in the Costa Chica area in January 2013 to fight cartel kidnappers and extortionists plaguing the mountains.[12] These vigilantes were led by indigenous Mixtec Bruno Placido, a seasoned community police activist.[13] Yet the vigilantes rapidly spilled over into non-indigenous villages and neighborhoods. The movement thus ceased to be a purely indigenous affair, governed by self-determination laws, and entered the majority Spanish-speaking population.

The Costa Chica vigilantes carried more potent weapons such as AR-15s and Uzis, as well as shotguns and hunting rifles.[14] They also pioneered the tactic of deploying hundreds of vigilantes to sweep into towns, overwhelming cartel gunmen.[15] The following month, self-defense squads rose in the seething Tierra Caliente area of Michoacán using identical tactics.

Fighting the Knights Templar   
The vigilante militias that rose in Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente in February 2013 quickly became a larger and better-armed force than their counterparts in Guerrero.[16] This is partially due to the fact that they had access to higher-quality resources.[17] Members were not indigenous campesinos (peasant farmers), but included many large farm owners and businessmen.[18] They also had to become a more potent armed force just to survive.[19] While Guerrero vigilantes fought peripheral cells of fragmented drug gangs, the Michoacán self-defense squads faced one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico, the Knights Templar. If the vigilantes did not fight together and use more effective weapons, they would be defeated.[20]

The Knights Templar cartel has grabbed media headlines for its cult-like practices and pseudo-religious ideology as well as its brutal violence.[21] The templarios name themselves after medieval crusaders to appear brave and righteous even as they traffic crystal meth, heroin, marijuana and cocaine. They have a book of codes, conduct rituals in mock medieval armor and idolize their leader Nazario “The Maddest One” Moreno like a saint.[22] Moreno was killed by Mexican marines in March 2014.[23] The Knights often behead or mutilate their victims and leave their heads in discotheques or town squares.[24]

The Knights also stood out for the way they dominated the local Michoacán economy. They diversified from trafficking drugs into a more substantial portfolio of crimes, including kidnapping, extorting businesses large and small, illegal mining and illegal logging.[25] This diversification into crimes that directly harm civil society is an important factor that led to the formation of the vigilantes.

Other Mexican cartels such as the Zetas have also moved into a range of criminal activities, but the Knights Templar was perhaps the most systematic cartel, extorting almost every business in its territories. Corn growers say they were forced to sell their maize at three pesos a kilo to the Knights Templar, who subsequently sold it to tortilla makers for six pesos; lime and avocado farmers paid a percentage on every ton of fruit they grew; local stores, builders, restaurants, and gas stations all paid monthly quotas.[26] The failure of the government to stop these pervasive extortion schemes is cited by the Michoacán self-defense squads as their main justification for taking up arms.

“We believe that when the government is incapable of taking care of the people, of defending the people, the people have the right to defend themselves,” said Estanislao Beltran, a leader and spokesman of the Michoacán self-defense squads. “The people here, fed up of the injustice caused by the Knights Templar said ‘basta,’ and they rose up.”[27]

A Grueling Campaign
When the self-defense squads of Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente first rose, they were vulnerable to the heavily armed Knights Templar and cornered in a few towns and villages. They defended themselves with layers of defensive barricades, manned day and night by vigilantes armed with assault rifles.[28] They gradually spread to neighboring towns and villages, establishing cells of vigilantes in each territory they entered.[29] The balance of power shifted decisively in 2014, when the vigilantes advanced into the key towns of Paracuaro and Nueva Italia in January and Apatzingan in February.[30]

The self-defense squads form cells of about 10 men, led by a coordinator. These coordinators in turn answer to local or regional commanders.[31] About 30 commanders sit on a governing council, responsible for major decisions and strategies in Michoacán.[32] By April 2014, thousands of vigilantes bore arms in 30 municipalities in the state.[33]

The vigilantes smuggle in guns bought illegally in the United States and capture others from the Knights Templar.[34] Some of the vigilantes already had firearms experience because they were members of rifle clubs. They also trained with members who had served in the Mexican army, learning tactics such as how to advance into gunfire.[35]

Vigilantes often fight defensively against Knights Templar gunmen who ambush them at barricades on the edge of their communities. In other cases, they fight offensively, confronting cartel shooters as they advance into towns. When vigilante groups took Paracuaro in January 2014, a gangster attempted to fight them off, carrying a rocket launcher.[36] The vigilantes shot him dead before he could return fire.

A vigilante known by the nom de guerre Comandante Cinco has led several of the major offensives. He stated that his men will pardon lower level Knights Templar members, but the higher-level gangsters and killers must flee or risk death.[37] “We have to kill them,” he said. “If they captured me, do you think they would let me live?”[38] There has been no official count of the casualties from fighting between the Knights Templar and self-defense squads, but one vigilante said that more than 200 had been killed on both sides during a year of fighting.[39] While concerning, this is a fraction of the more than 70,000 estimated to have been killed in cartel related violence in Mexico since late 2006.[40]

Shifting Government Response
The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto has led a varied and shifting policy on the self-defense squads. After the vigilantes first rose in the Tierra Caliente in 2013, the army arrested 51 members for the possession of illegal weapons.[41] The vigilante movement defied these detentions and continued to grow and gain public support, with leaders appearing on top television news shows and opinion polls showing public sympathy toward them.[42] Security forces were then cautious about arresting more vigilantes as their numbers multiplied.

When the vigilantes led a major offensive into Nueva Italia and Paracuaro, Michoacán, in January 2014, provoking prolonged firefights, more than 12,000 police and soldiers descended on the state to keep order. The government then forged an effective alliance with the self-defense squads, holding a series of meetings with their leaders.[43] Some vigilantes became members of the Rural Defense Corps—a volunteer corps linked to the Mexican army[44]— while others continued to operate illegally, but were still tolerated, operating side-by-side with federal police and soldiers.[45] The vigilante leaders say they passed information to the security forces, including names and addresses of Templar leaders.[46]

Pena Nieto, who had condemned vigilante justice, supported this new position. “Some of the so-called self-defense squads have genuinely organized themselves to defend against the incursion of organized crime,” he said.[47] This effective alliance was formed when the vigilantes were in a position of strength and had gained the upper hand against the Knights Templar. With the security forces and vigilantes moving against the gangsters, the group of criminals who have controlled Michoacan since about 2006 largely collapsed, losing territory and resources. Mexican marines killed Knights Templar leader Moreno and his deputy Enrique Plancarte in March 2014.[48] This toppling of the Knights Templar sent shockwaves across the Mexican crime world, as their gangsters took refuge in surrounding states.[49]

As the Knights Templar were being routed, however, the government turned once again on the vigilantes. In March and early April, police and soldiers arrested dozens of members of self-defense squads for crimes including murder, kidnapping, theft and possession of illegal firearms.[50] Among those arrested was founding member Hipolitio Mora, imprisoned on the accusation he ordered the killing of a fellow vigilante.[51]

Mexico’s federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam stated he had evidence that many of the firearms used by the vigilantes had been provided by the rival Jalisco New Generation Cartel, adding to widespread accusations about suspected gangster support for the vigilante groups.[52] While it is clearly not the case that the entire self-defense movement is controlled by the Jalisco Cartel, it is likely that some vigilantes may work for them. A number of vigilantes openly admitted that they had worked for the Knights Templar cartel before “flipping” sides to the self-defense squads.[53] Vigilante commanders defend the recruitment of former templarios by saying they were better off having them on their side than working against them.[54] Nevertheless, this made the ranks of the vigilantes increasingly filled with people who had served prison time, trafficked drugs or committed even worse crimes.

Spreading to Other States
While vigilantes battle cartels in Michoacán and Guerrero, self-defense squads have emerged in several other states. In March 2014, groups of indigenous Yaquis in Sonora, which borders Arizona, announced the formation of “Community Guards” to stop drug producers who force them off their land to grow marijuana.[55] Also in March, a group handed out leaflets in Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, calling itself the “Alberto Carrera Torres Brigade,” after a local revolutionary, and promising to target the Zetas cartel.[56] Different forms of vigilante groups have also appeared in Veracruz, Tabasco, Jalisco and Oaxaca.[57]

Nevertheless, whereas there are thousands of vigilantes in Michoacán and Guerrero, there are only dozens in the other states. Alejandro Hope, a security analyst at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness and a former member of Mexico’s intelligence services, warned that there is danger of the self-defense squads spreading if the government does not forge a coherent policy to deal with them.[58] One policy, Hope said, could involve a new federal community police law defining exactly what groups such as the CRAC can do and finding mechanisms to control the authentic vigilantes.[59] “We need to find an exit for these exceptional circumstances, a way to reintegrate vigilantes into society, perhaps an amnesty for crimes they committed in fighting the Knights Templar,” he argued.[60]

Mexico’s vigilante self-defense squads began as an authentic movement to fight cartels, copying and expanding on the tactics developed by indigenous community police. The vigilantes clearly broke laws, but they claimed they were forced to take up arms because the government failed to defend them. They were effective in pushing the cartels out of territory because they could attack their base in the community in a way that the government had failed. When vigilantes and security forces worked together, they routed one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, the Knights Templar.

Despite these successes, it is important to note that some elements of the self-defense squads are accused of receiving resources from rival cartels.[61] Furthermore, the vigilantes have increasingly filled their ranks with former criminals and gangsters. They have been plagued by infighting among commanders and accusations of crimes in the territories they control. The Mexican government needs to forge a coherent policy to define the role of community police while it reestablishes the rule of law in these areas. If vigilantes continue to be illegal but informally tolerated, they could keep spreading into other states and, though well intentioned, further deteriorate Mexico’s rule of law and precipitate another cycle of violence.

Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico City. He has covered Latin America and the Caribbean since 2001 for media including Time Magazine, Reuters and the Sunday Telegraph. He is author of the book El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books and The Orwell Prize.

[1] Groups of migrants in California and other states have organized in support of the vigilantes. See Raymundo Pérez Arellano and Luis Díaz, “Autodefensas USA,” Noticieros Televisa, February 4, 2014.

[2] Mark Stevenson, “Another Mexican Vigilante Accused of Murder,” Associated Press, March 31, 2014.

[3] The fear of the vigilantes turning into Colombian-style paramilitaries was voiced most forcefully by Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco. See “Mexico’s Response to Vigilante Groups Insufficient,” Agence France-Presse, January 21, 2014.

[4] The history of indigenous self-policing is explained in “Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico,” International Crisis Group, May 28, 2013. It was also detailed in personal interview, Raul Benitez-Manaut, Center for Research on North America, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico, March 17, 2014.

[5]  Personal interview, Eliseo Villar, leader of CRAC, Chilpancingo, Mexico, April 2013.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  For details, see the following state law: Ley Numero 701 De Reconocimiento, Derechos y Cultura de los Pueblos y Comunidades Indigenas del Estado de Guerrero.

[9]  Sergio Ocampo, “Se Enfrentan Policias de Guerrero y Comunitarios en el Fortin,” La Jornada, March 19, 2014.

[10]  Karla Zabludovsky, “Reclaiming the Forests and the Right to Feel Safe,” New York Times, August 2, 2012.

[11]  Ibid.

[12]  Personal reporting in Tierra Colorada, Guerrero, April 2013. Also see Adam Thomson, “Mexico Vigilantes Take Law Into Own Hands,” Financial Times, April 12, 2013.

[13]  Ibid.

[14] This author witnessed vigilantes carrying these guns during personal reporting in Tierra Colorada, Guerrero, April 2013.

[15]  Personal reporting in Tierra Colorada, Guerrero, April 2013.

[16]  Personal reporting in Apatzingan, Paracuaro, Buenavista, Antunez and Nueva Italia, Mexico, January, February and March 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ioan Grillo, “Crusaders of Meth: Mexico’s Deadly Knights Templar,” Time Magazine, June 23, 2011.

[22] Ibid.; Catherine E. Shoichet, “Notorious Mexican Cartel Leader Nazario Moreno Dead – Again,” CNN, March 11, 2014.

[23]  Ibid.

[24]  “Hallan Cuatro Cuerpos Decapitados en un Convulso Estado de Mexico,” El Dia, February 5, 2014.

[25]  Dave Graham, “Chinese Iron Trade Fuels Port Clash With Mexican Drug Cartel,” Reuters, January 1, 2014.

[26]  Personal interviews, businessmen and residents, Apatzingan, Paracuaro, Buenavista, Antunez and Nueva Italia, Mexico, January, February and March 2014.

[27]  Personal interview, vigilante leader Estanislao Beltran, Apatzingan, Mexico, February 2014.

[28] Personal interviews, vigilantes and vigilante commanders, Apatzingan, Paracuaro, Buenavista, Antunez and Nueva Italia, Mexico, January, February and March 2014.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31]  Ibid.

[32]  Ibid.

[33]  Ibid.

[34]  Ibid. Also see Mark Stevenson, “Mexico Drug War: 70 Percent of Guns Seized Originate in U.S.,” Associated Press, June 13, 2011; Tim Johnson, “253,000 Guns Smuggled to Mexico Annually, Study Finds,” McClatchy Newspapers, March 18, 2013.

[35]  Ibid.

[36]  Photojournalists captured images of the dead Knights Templar gunman bearing the rocket launcher.

[37] Personal interview, vigilante leader Comandante Cinco, Paracuaro, January 2014.

[38]  Ibid.

[39] Personal interview, vigilante commander, Apatzingan, March 2014.

[40]  While there is discussion about the number of deaths caused by cartel related violence, most concur that at least 70,000 have been killed since December 2006, using counts provided by the government and those by Mexican media.

[41]  “Suman 51 Miembros de Grupo de Autodefensa Detenidos en Mexico,” Prensa Libre, March 12, 2013.

[42]  Various opinion polls showed positive public perception of the self-defense squads. One in January 2014 found that 52.3% said the vigilantes were good and only 29.7% said they were bad. See “Encuesta: Crece El Apoyo de Ciuadanos a Las Autodefensas,” ADNPolitico, January 29, 2014.

[43]  Dudley Althaus, “With Friends Like These, Can Mexico Find Justice?” Global Post, March 13, 2014.

[44]  “Mexico To Integrate Vigilantes Into Security Forces,” BBC, January 28, 2014.

[45] Richard Fausset, “Mexico Vigilantes Backed By Troops March Into Key City In Michoacán,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2014.

[46]  Personal interviews, vigilante barricades, Apatzingan, Paracuaro, Buenavista, Antunez and Nueva Italia, Mexico, January, February and March 2014.

[47]  Georgina Olson, “Pena Nieto: habia policias cooptadas en Michoacan, zonas con debilidad institucional,” Excelsior, January 24, 2014.

[48]  Olga Rodriguez, “Enrique Plancarte, Leader of Brutal Mexican Knights Templar Cartel, Dead,” Associated Press, April 1, 2014.

[49]  Rodrigo Villegas, “El Efecto Cucaracha,” Reporte Indigo, January 21, 2014.

[50] “Suman 54 Autodefensas Detenidos,” Quadratin, March 31, 2014.

[51]  Adriana Gomez, “Mexico Charges Vigilante Leader With Murder,” Associated Press, March 14, 2014.

[52]  Richard Fausset and Cecilia Sanchez, “Mexico Official Says Some Vigilante Arms Supplied By Drug Cartel,” Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2014.

[53]  Personal interviews, vigilante barricades, Apatzingan, Paracuaro, Buenavista, Antunez and Nueva Italia, Mexico, January, February and March 2014.

[54]  Personal interviews, vigilante commanders, Apatzingan and Antunez, February 2014.

[55]  Astrid Rivera, “Surgen en Sonora Autodefensas,” El Universal, March 27, 2014.

[56]  “Anuncian La Creacion de Una Brigada de Autodefensa en Tamaulipas,” Proceso, March 5, 2014.

[57]  “Autodefensas Se Expanden a 10 Estados del Pais Afirma Estudio,” Sin Embargo, September 22, 2013.

[58] Personal interview, Alejandro Hope, Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, March 2014.

[59]  Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61]  Fausset.

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