The Tradition of Self-Defense Groups in Mexico

ruralesOne of the biggest gripes that I have about the news media, in general, is the overuse of the so-called “experts” on issues that are nothing more than self-serving self-promoting talking heads. The self-proclaimed “experts” seldom provide unbiased expertise on a topic. It’s not their fault as their goal is to sell their “expertise” to those willing to pay. The news media is at fault for their over reliance on the topic “expert” to “report” the news. Take for example the self-defense, or vigilante groups in Mexico.

Self-defense groups have a rich tradition in Mexico and did not spring up overnight. In fact, they have existed since the 1800’s. Not one of the so-called “experts” on the Mexican Drug War have provided you this context and so the notion that they are “new” to Mexican security has been allowed to manifest itself into the discussion.

It is true that many of the current self-defense groups began to form as a result of the drug violence in Mexico. Many of the vigilante groups are made up of local residents tired of the endless petty crimes in their communities and the police inability to curtail the thefts, extortions and kidnappings plaguing many communities in Mexico. As of August 2013, they have been reported in at least 68 communities in about 13 states across Mexico.

The news media has generally tended to focus on the possible similarities between the Mexican self-defense groups and those that rose up in Colombia during Colombia’s war against Pablo Escobar and the other Colombian drug cartels. Although government pressures on drug cartels may be a common nexus, the two groups have two different roots to them. The Colombian groups were offshoots of the cartels themselves who formed vigilante groups to protect themselves against Pablo Escobar’s violence. Although a few in Mexico may be linked to criminal gangs, the vast majority are local residents defending themselves and their communities against lawlessness amongst them. There is precedence in Mexican history for these groups.

What the vast majority of the news media and their talking head “experts” have neglected to layout for discussion is that self-defense groups are a tradition in Mexico and were precisely created, nurtured and officially supported for the protection of the rural communities. They are known as the Rurales.

The Rurales, or the rurals have also been known as the Cuerpo de Policía Rural or the Guardia Rural. The Rurales were established in 1861 by President Benito Juárez to impose the rule of law across Mexico. At the time, Mexico was composed of various rural communities known as ejidos each with its own chieftain imposing authority over the farms or ranches within their domain. Juárez relied heavily on the Rurales during the French Occupation of Mexico. From that moment on the Rurales continued to grow in Mexico and were formally integrated into the Mexican military in 1964. Although unpaid volunteers the membership benefited from the outdated weapons, the military armed them with. This was especially attractive to the volunteers because weapons are difficult to legally own in Mexico. Their primary function was to act as the ears and eyes of the Mexican military in rural Mexico helping to combat subversive activities during the Cold War.

Officially, the Mexican military identifies them as the Cuerpos de Defensa Rurales. The Mexican military has had a detailed integration plan for the Rural Defense Forces formally integrating them into the country’s security apparatus. According to the 1964 “Instructivo Para La Organización, Funcionamiento y Empleo de los Cuerpos de Defensa Rurales” military manual the Rural Defense Units “cooperate with the Army and Air Force in the defense of the integrity and sovereignty of the country as well as the legal order and security of the country’s rural areas”. The manual adds that in the case of “international war or a serious breakdown in internal security” the Rural Defense Units may be integrated into active military units.

Traditionally the Rurales have been formed around a rural community commonly known as an ejido. Each unit or “pelotón” has its own command that reports directly to the Military’s regional commander who ultimately reports directly to the Mexican President. There are many detailed requirements as to the membership requirements and duties the Rural Defense Units must adhere to. It is important though to understand that they have legally been recognized as part of Mexico’s national defense doctrine and there are strict mechanisms as to how they operate under the direct supervision of the military.

uniforme_ruralesThe November 19, 2004 “Reglamento de Uniformes y Divisas del Ejército y Fuerza Aérea Mexicanos” or The Uniform Regulations and Devices (military ribbons etc.) of the Army and Air force, detail the Rural Defense Force uniforms.

Their primary mission is to maintain security within their operational areas. Security doctrinally includes law and order in Mexico. Security, for Mexico, is tiered into three primary functions; external security against an invading force, internal security against internal disorder and support of the population during catastrophic events. The military and by extension the Rurales follow this doctrine, thus the self-defense forces are neither new for Mexico nor are they unique to the current security issues being faced by the country.

Much has been talked about how the Mexican government has begun to integrate the self-defense groups into its overall security strategy however the point that everyone is missing is that the mechanism to integrate them was already in existence. They are not new, or unique to Mexico in fact they are serving the purpose that they were originally created to serve. In fact, they are empowering Mexicans to become self-reliant in their own security.

Understanding the context of the tradition of the Rurales would allow us to have a better understanding of the consequences and or benefits of self-defense groups in Mexico’s Drug War. Without the context of the historical significance of self-defense groups, the discussion focuses on erroneous assumptions about the security state of Mexico. This has led to sound bite comments about how the current administration has been more effective in dealing with the problem of drug cartels or that an “accommodation” has been made between the government and one cartel over the other.

I believe the PRI government is good for Mexico however I believe that the capture of Chapo Guzman was not a direct result of the PRI administration but rather it is about a strategy that was developed and implemented by the Calderon (PAN) administration that has been evolving since then. The complexity of the Drug War in Mexico is much too complex to identify through one administration over another. However because the so-called “experts” continue to pontificate about the meanings of the self-defense groups in Mexico without the necessary context betrays their thorough lack of understanding the Mexican cultural psyche and thus their assumptions are erroneous from the onset.

Personally, I believe the self-defense groups are important to the resolution of the drug cartel problem in Mexico. I strongly believe in self-determination and as such, I advocate self-reliance. However, I am not blind to the dangers of allowing self-defense groups unrestricted activities. Unfortunately, this important discussion cannot be had because the “expert” talking heads clearly do not have a firm grasp of the context from which these groups have evolved. Thus, we have the continued distorted and incomplete picture of the possible ramifications to the whole issue.

News reporters need to understand what it is they are reporting on before continuing to allow self-promoting “experts” to pontificate about things they clearly do not understand. To continue to rely on observations without important context distorts the overall understanding of the topic.

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