Over the last decade, Mexico has become a battlefield as a consequence of the ‘War on Drugs’ led by former president, Felipe Calderón. Several public and private national and international organizations have concluded that Calderón’s administration left an estimated of 60 to 85.000 deaths and over 150.000 internally displaced people. Nonetheless, violence cannot be attributed to the last decade exclusively. Increase in violence over the last years is a direct consequence of many decades of influence peddling, collusion, corruption and impunity in which many political actors have been nastily involved. Crime was left to grow disproportionately, without any real effort to eradicate poverty, inequalities, unemployment and many other social and economic problems that led civil population to become actives in organized crime.
Democratic transition achieved by the National Action Party (PAN) from 2000 to 2012 sank as a result of Calderon’s catastrophe, leading to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) –party with a very questionable reputation which prior to PAN ruled the country for 71 years- to once again occupy the presidency under the rule of not so loved Enrique Peña Nieto. Even though his rise to power came with high expectations on the matter, PRI has also been unable to provide a clear strategy to combat crime.
Government statistics suggest that crime-related deaths have decreased since Enrique Peña Nieto became president. However, different institutions and non-governmental organizations have estimated that the 5,000 deaths registered and presented to the public by the new administration from December 2012 to April 2013, are far from being accurate. Independent organizations suggest that the real number is actually over 8,000.
Calderón’s biggest failure was Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua a state which lived the harsh consequences of organized crime in which thousands of civilians lost their lives, many of them women. Today, Ciudad Juárez continues to be the fourth most dangerous city in Mexico, witness of the worst human rights violations recorded in our history.
Calderon’s ongoing failure, which has now become Peña Nieto’s botch, is not only Ciudad Juárez, but also Acapulco in the state of Guerrero. According to the National Information System, in the first months since he took office, this city had registered over 403 homicides –increased to 888 in June 2013- and is now an entity disputed by 17 organized crime groups. Nevertheless, is not only killings that have alarmed government officials and civilians; kidnappings, extortion, forced disappearances, human trafficking and sexual abuses have all increased disproportionately. In only five months, almost 600 kidnappings were registered in Mexico, out of which 108 happened in the first month of the new administration.
Mexico’s violent environments have not changed, problem is, official statistics are incoherent and media does not cover these crimes as it did during Calderon’s administration. Many of us are afraid that violence has now become an unfashionable subject in Mexican media to benefit Peña Nieto’s image as a ‘new hope’ for our country. However, when we look at the alarming number of attacks against independent media and activists, it is in fact tough to deal with this problem without consequences.
As a result of the weariness, incompetent institutions and the alarming increase of organized groups threatening and harming innocent civilians, people have taken actions on its own. All over Mexico self-defense groups have been created by local communities, being the state of Guerrero a key actor in dealing with organized crime as authorities have not been able to protect them and their families. The proliferation of these groups is the result of collusion of officials with criminal groups and the state’s inability to provide security.
These are not community police forces as the ones created over 20 years ago in different indigenous populations in Mexico. These are groups of armed civilians aiming to protect their land, homes and businesses from organized crime’s acts of extortion, kidnappings, rape and environmental degradation. As a consequence of the escalating violence in the state since last January, hundreds of civilians have joined these forces with the purpose of defending their rights and their families’ safety, and they have succeeded.
Even though Guerrero and Michoacán have been the most controversial states as a result of the increase of self-defense groups, in at least 32 municipalities in almost a dozen states, these groups have emerged with strength, internal rules and assemblies which have proven to be 95% efficient in tackling crime and abuses against its population.
The vast majority of communities in which these groups have been created, come from the most impoverished regions of Mexico, consisting of Mixtec indigenous people, Tlalpanecas and Mestizos. As such, they have created an internal system in which language and cultural roots are mandatory in order to prevent the infiltration of criminals. Over centuries, these communities have been responsible for their own means of survival, which include social and cultural structures. They have been excluded from democratic processes, often victims of pure propaganda in order to favor certain candidates during electoral contests. For this reason, it is not odd that in these cases they decided to take action and stand up for their rights. A great example to Mexican authorities and officials that for years have decided to benefit criminals and foster injustice.
Hundreds of men have decided to do this for themselves, their families and their neighbors, a process in which women are now taking an active role. Often victims of rape, sexual violence and discrimination, women all over Mexico have paid the hard consequences of an incontrollable violent environment, as such, they have been subjugated to the protection of man without doing much for themselves. This is not the case in self-defense groups as women are now part of the forces of brave people who want to defend their communities and are certainly serving as an example of efficiency and honest practices to the entire country.
Two weeks ago 102 women joined the self-defense group in Xaltianguis, Guerrero. All of them with different backgrounds, who committed themselves to bring peace back to their community. They will perform the same duties as men in this region and will have strong responsibilities towards its community following the example of other self-defense groups in other regions of the country in which women have taken a leading role in peacekeeping and peacbuilding processes.
Government has declared these groups as illegal before the law since they could eventually become a paramilitary force which can alter national peace. However, as we see and analyze the alarming statistics, the ongoing violence and the failure of our institutions, what else can communities like Xaltianguis do? They certainly cannot wait for Peña Nieto’s administration to bring back peace and security, as they have been victims of abandonment for decades. They cannot wait for criminals to take over their lives, homes and family members. They certainly cannot wait to become victims of forced disappearance, human trafficking, rape and other dozens of human rights violations. Enough is enough and brave women and men in my country are taking a stand, which might be illegal in the eyes of others, but is fair and highly required if we want peace to be achieved and justice to applied.
Karol Alejandra Arámbula Carrillo – Consultant in Women and International Affairs from Guadalajara, Mexico.