With the authority already earned by having set in motion far-reaching reforms that were long unthinkable in Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto has now undertaken an important battle to construct development models capable of freeing Mexican society from the bondage of violence.
Accompanied by his entire Cabinet — a gesture unheard of in Mexico — the president broadcast a clear message from Michoacán state: that he will rescue this region not only from the criminal gangs that hold its inhabitants hostage, but also from the sinister trap that threatens impoverished societies — that of seeing lawless organizations themselves as supposed redeemers, but who eventually become predators upon those who first opened the door to them.
Michoacán has suffered violence and misgovernment for decades. But the degradation hit a new low a year ago, when the inaction of the state authorities and the federal government’s neglect led, in February 2013, to the rise of so-called self-defense groups, formed principally in ranching and farming areas where law-abiding citizens, driven to despair by proliferating murders and rapes of children and women, took the law into their own hands.
The appearance of these vigilante groups has caused alarm throughout Mexico. Justifying themselves in terms of the understandable desire for self-defense when the state fails to preserve public order, these organizations are often seen in an ingenuous or even romantic light. But these citizen groups are obviously open to infiltration by criminal elements, who would thus gain control of new markets and routes for their illicit businesses and further aggravate the decline of public order into violence. This is why Peña Nieto’s visit is much more than a routine act of government. It must be an expression of political will on the part of a state prepared to add far-reaching public policies to the efforts of the security forces which, since January 13, have been attempting to recover control of the territories of Tierra Caliente, where the self-defense groups appear to have the criminal cartel Los Templarios on the run.
The vigilantes may claim a double success: forcing the retreat of the criminals and shaming the government into giving more help than it ever has to these towns. Now the big challenge facing the Mexican president — who announced spending on social projects amounting to more than 2.5 billion euros — is to turn this initiative into the first steps toward rebuilding Michoacán’s social fabric, so badly damaged by years of criminal power.
It will take time to restore confidence in public order. The victims must see justice done; a trustworthy police force will have to be created; and a policy will have to be constructed in which there will no longer be officials who look the other way while citizens fall prey to the criminal and the unscrupulous. As for the self-defense forces, the time has come for them to demobilize. For the politicians, it is time to choose between the past and the future. And for Peña Nieto, there is no room for failure in this undertaking.