What are the Mexican Autodefensas and Community Police Forces?

In around 5% of Mexican territory – at least 11 states and 106 municipalities – there are community self-defence groups, which have grown in response to extortion and violence at the hands of drug traffickers. Around 77% of these groups can be found in Michoacán, Guerrero and Chiapas. [1]

Michoacán and Guerrero

In Michoacán, a fifth of the state is controlled by Autodefensas (self-defence groups) [2], which have at least 25,000 armed members. [3] One survey suggests that around 58% of the state’s population support these groups. [4], [5]

They receive economic support, along with petrol and cows [6], from farmers, communal farms workers, and local businessmen. [7] The weapons they have are largely obtained from the members of the Caballeros Templarios (drug trafficking cartel) that they kill. [8]

Several of their members are migrants who went to the USA but decided to return and fight against organised crime to defend their families and communities. [9] Women also play a part in these groups. [10], [11]

In Guerrero, the Community Police Forces (PCs) receive a voluntary contribution of either $200 or $300 pesos, where previously they had to pay ‘taxes’ to organised criminals of between $1,000 and $2,000 pesos. [12] According to the leaders of these groups, 90% of crime has been stopped, and the remaining 10%, they claim, continues only because of government protection. [13]

In both states, these groups root their actions in the Mexican Constitution (specifically article 39, which speaks of the People’s “inalienable right to modify or change their form of government”). [14], [15]

How has the Federal Government reacted to these groups?

To begin with, it is clear that the government failed to reduce organised crime before these groups arose. Instead, it has used its “War on Drugs” to militarise the country – leading to an increase violence in violence which has adversely affected the civilian population. [16], [17], [18], [19], [20] In Guerrero, the PCs point out that: “In six years of the War on Drugs, nothing changed. With our own police, we sorted things out within a month”. [21]

At the beginning of 2014, Michoacán’s Autodefensas launched an assault on criminal-controlled territories, aiming to take control of Apatzingán (the political and economic epicentre of the area). This city is a stronghold for the Caballeros Templarios and, due to government intervention, the Autodefensas were prevented from changing that. [22] The government’s first response in Michoacán was to try to use the Army to disarm the Autodefensa members, but communities protested against this action. As a result, the Army killed 4 unarmed civilians, including an 11-year-old girl. [23] On top of the already well known links between drug traffickers and the Army in Michoacán, this attack served to reduce people’s faith in the Army even more. [24]

The Autodefensas remained firm, telling the government they would not disarm until they were brought all of the Caballero Templario leaders: Kike Plancarte, El Chayo, La Tuta y El Tío. They also affirmed that, if the government tried to arrest Autodefensa members, they would resist. [25] As a result, the government improvised a Plan B, seeking to institutionalise the groups through the Agreement for Federal Support of Security in Michoacán. [26] But the government will not take repression of the table, so the Autodefensas should pay attention to avoid being disarmed. [27]

In the short time the Federal Government has been dealing with the situation in Michoacán, it has managed to capture several members of the Caballeros Templarios who the local communities don’t know, encouraging responses like “Who the hell is that?” [28] One ice-cream seller asked himself “Why have they waited until now? This situation has existed for years!” [29]

Our response to that question is simple. The government doesn’t want the working population to be armed and to arrange their own systems of security and justice. Such behaviour, independent from the government, could potentially lead to a growth in consciousness among these people, helping them to realise that the current ‘pro-business’ government is not necessary to ensure a dignified existence. Furthermore, they could realise that they are also capable of controlling and managing the other functions of government, such as the economy, healthcare, education, and culture. Such a realisation would lead to a popular, conscious resistance against a Federal Government which currently finds itself in the hands of a greedy, corrupt, exploitative and oppressive capitalist minority.

An elderly woman, when the government signed its agreement with the Autodefensas, asked “Why are we signing this now? Why are we going to work with the government now when we’ve proved that we don’t need them to organise and defend ourselves? Why do we need to sign an agreement with these white collar criminals?” [30]

The government isn’t scared of organised crime – with which it has political and economic ties. It is scared of communities seeking social justice for themselves. If it does step up its fight against organised criminals, it is only with the aim of disarming the People. If these groups had never risen up, the government would never have set foot in Michoacán and violent crime would have continued, unstoppable and unpunished. [31]

Autodefensa members fear that, once the Caballeros Templarios have been defeated, they themselves will be criminalised, pursued, and imprisoned by the Federal Government. They worry that the information shared in their agreement with the government may later be used against them. [32] And they have good reason to distrust the government. In Guerrero in 2013, the government first “cooperated” with the PCs in their detention of criminals but, when the missions has been completed, it withdrew its support and imprisoned PC leaders. Among those PC members is Olinalá PC commander Nestora Salgado who, along with 12 colleagues, has been in prison since last year. [33], [34]

The National Commission for Human Rights affirms that it finds this effective betrayal “worrying”, saying that it appears there has been a “political use of justice” by the state government. The duties “endorsed, recognised, and supported by the state government of Guerrero” were the very same used to justify the imprisonment of PC members. [35]

The Community Forces (as Autodefensas are also called because “they are from the community” [36]), recognise the political games being played by the government. “They are just using us to look good, but what they really want is a list of names so that, when they see fit, they can come and disarm us and arrest us once we’ve done their job for them.” [37] To back up these suspicions, the government has recently released reports suggesting links between Autodefensas and organised criminals – saying that the groups could become criminals themselves. [38] Such defamation helps to justify any future government-led repression of the Autodefensas.

Government collusion with criminals

The collusion of the Federal Government with organised criminals was clearly seen when the Army stopped the Autodefensas entering into Apatzingán (a Caballero Templario stronghold). But, having denounced government collusion on numerous occasions, the local communities were not surprised. They have been victims of the complicity between the authorities and criminal groups – collaboration we ourselves have denounced, as have reports of the human rights commission. And the situation is made even clearer by the fact that Autodefensas and PCs have been harassed and threatened themselves by both the authorities and criminal gangs. Members have died. Others are in prison. Yet more have arrest warrants out on their heads. Such treatment suggests a significant level of government and criminal collusion. [39], [40], [41], [42]

Socialism and community police forces

The communities mentioned have had to arm themselves in response to real, urgent problems of extreme insecurity and violence. With government negligence or complicity, the need for a civilian response has been even more vital.

For the State, the existence of autonomous armed citizen groups is incompatible with its own. It cannot bear to lose its own monopoly on the use of force. Even though the weapons of these civilian groups are currently used against criminals, they could at some point be used against their corrupt government and its capitalist backers. And in this sense, without knowing it, these groups are highly revolutionary – putting into practice the socialist slogan of popular armament. From a political point of view, they could be seen as embryonic experiences of a popular, armed, peasant army.

The functions of the State have effectively been replaced by grassroots organisations. The Zapatistas and their Committees of Good Government have already exhibited the presence of ‘double power’ in Mexico. In Chiapas, they govern around 250,000 indigenous people through these Committees. And, having failed to contain the Zapatista experience, Mexico’s ruling class is determined not to allow similar groups to arise elsewhere. However, the government is limited by the fact that the community self-defence groups are bringing security to regions that they had previously failed to protect. The media campaign against these groups is one way in which the government hopes to reduce or contain the popular support that they have received so far.

One significant reason for indigenous and peasant mobilisations is the poverty prevalent throughout the Mexican countryside – which looks set to worsen with the rise in price of food products. Their growing resistance is a result of the structural problems of capitalism, such as its desire to barbarically exploit the country’s national resources, its failure to provide sufficient employment, the high cost of living, poverty, and the extent of the wealth of criminals and drug lords – which is overlapping more and more with other sectors of business and politics. [43]

Without justice, there can be no peace. And when a government is unable to give its people the justice it craves, resistance is inevitable. That is what is happening in Mexico, and it could well lead to profound structural change in the country. It is just a matter of time.

Translated and adapted from an article by Tomás Holguín, published on February 10th, 2014 at http://pos.org.mx/?p=6656


[1] «La geografía de las autodefensas», Animal Político, http://www.animalpolitico.com/blogueros-causa-en-comun/2014/01/28/la-geografia-de-las-autodefensas/.

[2] Ediciones El País, «Los justicieros de Tierra Caliente», EL PAÍS, 20 de enero de 2014, http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2014/01/17/actualidad/1389987585_455506.html.

[3] «La Jornada: ‘‘Contamos con 25 mil hombres armados’’, dicen autodefensas», http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/01/16/politica/004n1pol.

[4] «El 58% de michoacanos avala autodefensas, revela encuesta», Quadratín, http://www.quadratin.com.mx/justicia/El-58-de-michoacanos-avala-autodefensas-revela-encuesta/.

[5] «La Jornada: Podría vivir tranquilo en EU, pero ¿qué iba a pensar mi familia?: El Americano», http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/01/23/politica/005n1pol.

[6] Ibid.

[7] País, «Los justicieros de Tierra Caliente».

[8] Ibid.

[9] «La Jornada: Podría vivir tranquilo en EU, pero ¿qué iba a pensar mi familia?: El Americano».

[10] «Avanza policía comunitaria a Mazatlán, Guerrero – Agencia Imagen del Golfo», http://www.imagendelgolfo.com.mx/resumen.php?id=40987309.

[11] «Ama de casa toma las armas y se integra a las filas de autodefensas», Proceso, http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=363325.

[12] «Informe especial | Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – México», http://www.cndh.org.mx/node/913372.

[13] «Líder de autodefensa acusa a militar de nexos con el narco | Red Política – El Universal», http://www.redpolitica.mx/estados/policia-civil-acusa-capitan-del-ejercito-de-nexos-con-el-narco.

[14] «Líder de autodefensa acusa a militar de nexos con el narco | Red Política – El Universal».

[15] «Guerrero: Un año sin policía y sin mafia. Un año de autodefensas – emeequis».

[16] «Asamblea no a la militarización: A la comunidad en general», http://noalamilitarizacion.blogspot.mx/2009/07/la-comunidad-en-general-desde-la.html.

[17] «Asamblea no a la militarización: Foro Celebrando las Luchas Sociales en Ciudad Juarez», http://noalamilitarizacion.blogspot.mx/2009/08/foro-celebrando-las-luchas-sociales-en_10.html.

[18] «FNCR-Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua: Tendencias peligrosas», http://fncrjuarez.blogspot.mx/2009/02/tendencias-peligrosas.html.

[19] «FNCR-Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua: Balance de la Visitaduría de la CEDH sobre la participacion del ejército en Ciudad Juárez, periodo (enero 2008-febrero 2009)», http://fncrjuarez.blogspot.mx/2009/03/balance-de-la-visitaduria-de-la-cedh.html.

[20] «Una crítica a la izquierda. Sobre las autodefensas y la represiónPor Tomás Holguín», Partido Obrero Socialista, http://pos.org.mx/?p=6294.

[21] «Guerrero: Un año sin policía y sin mafia. Un año de autodefensas – emeequis», http://www.m-x.com.mx/2014-01-12/guerrero-un-ano-sin-policia-y-sin-mafia-int/.

[22] País, «Los justicieros de Tierra Caliente».

[23] Ibid.

[24] «Cruzando Fronteras en Territorio Templario – El Enemigo Común», http://elenemigocomun.net/es/2014/01/cruzando-fronteras-territorio-templario/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cruzando-fronteras-territorio-templario.

[25] «La Jornada: Podría vivir tranquilo en EU, pero ¿qué iba a pensar mi familia?: El Americano».

[26] «Claves del acuerdo entre Segob y autodefensas | Red Política – El Universal», http://www.redpolitica.mx/estados/los-ocho-punto-del-acuerdo-segob-autodefensas.

[27] «Editorial El Socialista en red #46», Partido Obrero Socialista, http://pos.org.mx/?p=6351.

[28] País, «Los justicieros de Tierra Caliente».

[29] Ibid.

[30] «Cruzando Fronteras en Territorio Templario – El Enemigo Común».

[31] «Michoacán, Guerrero… el pueblo armado y su derecho a hacerlo. Por Cuauhtémoc Ruiz, 22 de enero», Partido Obrero Socialista, http://pos.org.mx/?p=6429.

[32] «Cruzando Fronteras en Territorio Templario – El Enemigo Común».

[33] «Informe especial | Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – México».

[34] «Una plática con la familia y amistades de Nestora Salgado. Por Tomás Holguín», Partido Obrero Socialista, http://pos.org.mx/?p=6007.

[35] «Informe especial | Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – México».

[36] «Cruzando Fronteras en Territorio Templario – El Enemigo Común».

[37] Ibid.

[38] «La Jornada: En 2013, el gobierno detuvo a 34 autodefensas que fueron capacitados en manejo de armas», http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/01/23/politica/006n1pol.

[39] «La Jornada: Podría vivir tranquilo en EU, pero ¿qué iba a pensar mi familia?: El Americano».

[40] «Líder de autodefensa acusa a militar de nexos con el narco | Red Política – El Universal».

[41] Ediciones El País, «La crisis de narcoviolencia hunde en la sospecha al Gobierno de Michoacán», EL PAÍS, 31 de julio de 2013, http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/07/31/actualidad/1375299313_250798.html.

[42] «Informe especial | Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – México».

[43] Se está incubando un levantamiento indígena y popular. Pluma. Revista teórica marxista de política, arte y cultura. No 22, verano del 2013.

About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
This entry was posted in Autodefensas, Autonomy, capitalism, capitalismo, dignidad, dignity, Imperialism, independence, justice, Latin America, Latinoamérica, México, Mexico, política, politics, rebellion, revolution, socialism, socialismo, Uncategorized, Zapatistas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What are the Mexican Autodefensas and Community Police Forces?

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