A War within a War: The Rise of Vigilantes in Mexico and the Implications for Multinationals
Imagine walking past a heavily armed man wearing a ballistic helmet and bulletproof vest. In most countries, it would be safe to assume that the person you saw was a member of the local police force or possibly the military.
In Mexico, there’s another possibility. Fed up with the never-ending cycle of violence, murders, corruption, and lack of punishment due to an inept legal system, regular citizens have come together to form “citizen police” to go head to head with the cartels. In addition to conducting regular street patrols and raids of suspected hideouts, vigilantes attempt to limit the movement of criminals by staging roadblocks to search cars and their occupants.
While vigilantes lack the legal power of law enforcement, they routinely detain, interrogate, and sometimes torture those they suspect of wrongdoing. And although the Mexican government condemns the actions of vigilantes, citizens in the most crime-infested, lawless parts of the country support and often publicly praise their efforts.
The Struggle for Supremacy
The rise of vigilante groups is the latest effort to wrest control of the country from the cartels and criminal gangs that make life in many parts of Mexico a daily struggle. In addition to exerting control over lucrative drug routes, the cartels and criminal gangs engage in extortion of local businesses, with the promise of death for those who don’t acquiesce to the demands.
However well intentioned, vigilantes lack formal training and oversight. Consequently, some vigilante groups abuse their power and remain susceptible to infiltration by members of cartels and the criminals they are meant to fight. And while countless vigilantes have died protecting their homes and villages, inevitably, unarmed citizens can also end up caught in the crossfire between the government, criminals, and vigilantes.
By arming regular citizens and helping them defend themselves against organized crime, the leaders of vigilante groups have given hope to once-powerless communities. Nonetheless, the existence of well-armed vigilantes makes an already complicated environment even more complex and volatile.
Navigating an Unstable Environment
Without an understanding of the number, size, capabilities, and modus operandi of vigilantes in a particular area, a multinational could unwittingly place their people and assets in the midst of a highly volatile part of the country. Simply put, when everyone carries guns and exerts control over the local populace, how do you quickly tell the “good” guys from the “bad”?
The emergence of the vigilante movement started in small gatherings in villages and towns, far from the prying eyes of the government and media. In fact, while some of the leaders of the vigilante movement appear in public, many wear disguises or deny their membership as they fear reprisals by the cartels.
Determining whether a region presents a heightened security risk for a foreign company requires in-depth, local knowledge of the amount of crime taking place, the level of law enforcement activity, and whether vigilantism has taken hold in the region.
A granular view of the current security situation makes it possible to deploy the appropriate security countermeasures to mitigate the risk. For example, if members of the local vigilante group routinely stage roadblocks on certain roads, a multinational can avoid those roads or, budget permitting, use planes or helicopters to transport its employees and executives into a region.
An Uncertain Outlook
Whether the Mexican government can reestablish the rule of law in the areas lost to cartels and violent criminal gangs remains to be seen. In the meantime, multinationals will continue to face a fluid and uncertain operating environment.
Given the grassroots movement by regular citizens to regain control of the country, if they are to mitigate the considerable risk that comes with operating amongst the cartels, criminals, and vigilantes, multinationals must know who to avoid and who to trust. That type of knowledge isn’t publicly available and requires access to local security professionals with extensive experience navigating a volatile and unpredictable environment that shows no signs of settling down in the foreseeable future.