Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, advocated the necessity of a strong state to suppress human nature. According to Hobbes, the state is there to protect humanity from itself and the endless cycle of violence that characterises the state of nature. Justice is exercised by the state and not by individuals or communities, to prevent a war of all against all.
“There were around 90 leaders, and the mid-level bosses organised the crime here, but they had more than 3,000 falcons, they had around two or three 14 or 15-year-old boys controlling each street, each blocking entries, exits…” says Citizens Self-Defence Movement Council’s, Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde as he explains how a drug cartel operate in Tepalcatepec, state of Michoacan, Mexico.
The issue of self-administered justice, also known as vigilantism or self-policing, arises in Hobbes’ state of nature. Self-administered justice is practiced in communities where the legal, state-operated, mechanisms for criminal punishment are either non-existent or insufficient.
All too often this phenomenon is linked to chaos and arbitrary killings caused by warlord militia and rebel groups. However, it is important to analyse the positive aspects of self-administered justice.
Contrary to what Thomas Hobbes predicted, the absence of state does not necessarily entail the end of civilization. When state justice fades, communities create new answers to crime. With the creation of vigilante groups, the social contract’s responsibilities shift from state to non-state actor.
In over 60 Mexican municipalities, especially in the rural southwest, communities have taken up arms against drug Cartels. The community based groups take control of the village and use confiscated police vehicles and heavy weapons to keep the streets safe. Several reports even mention vigilante groups arresting corrupt police officers.
In Tepalcatepec, a village in the state of Michoacan, the Citizens Self-Defence Movement has declared war against the Knights Templar cartel; a violent, pseudo-religious drug organisation composed of remnants of the disintegrated La Familia cartel. Together with similar community based self-policing groups, they have managed to free several municipalities from the Knights Templar’s grip.
The self-defence groups start small: farmers, small business owners, day labourers… set up roadblocks and perform routine sweeps of vehicles and buildings. The initiative launched by a handful of commoners tired of violence and corruption, steadily expands to an equipped network of hundreds of volunteers with SUV’s, bulletproof jackets and machine guns.
Many of Mexico’s vigilante refuse to abandon their quest against a failing government and violent drug cartels. Despite these groups clearly breaking Mexican law, the federal government no longer opposes their actions. On the contrary, Tepalcatepec’s Citizens Self-Defence Movement has co-operated with the attorney general and the army.
Tepalcatepec’s Citizens Self-Defence Movement and many similar organisations in Mexico show that self-administered justice does not always equalise arbitrary killings. It will be a challenge for the UNHCR at the KULMUN 2014 conference to address all the aspects of this issue.