Abadfeb’s editorial reminds me of feudalism. Until the rise of state-level armies in the 17th century, the nobility had their own soldiers to keep the peasants in line. Now, rich landowners hire vigilantes to fight the guerrillas or drug cartels, but soon the vigilantes are also dealing in drugs and killing civilians, indistinguishable from the guerrillas, and too strong to be defeated by state level armies.
Here’s my summary of what Abadfeb describes is happening in Columbia and Mexico, but I think it applies to many countries in the world:
- The army, blessed by central authorities, looks for an ally
- Compared to the evil guerrilla army, the vigilante self-defense groups look great — they have popular support and the state army gives them permission to fight the guerrillas.
- The government ignores the fact that some of these vigilantes might be financed by a rival drug gang.
- When the state tries to reassert order, they can’t. The vigilantes have turned into a real armed power and indistinguishable from the guerrilla army or the gangsters they’re fighting. Abadfeb says the outcome is “outlying territories turn into battlefields where life is impossible for defenseless civilians. The legitimate economy and tourism disappear, death tolls soar, and the final winner, inevitably, is not the state but some local narco-dictator with his own army of mercenaries”.
- “The vigilantes might begin by killing kidnappers, drug dealers and extortionists, but soon they begin killing their relatives, and then their friends, or those they think are their friends, and then the friends’ families, until everyone is suspect and they might come knocking at your own door, as happened to us in Colombia — as happened to my own father, when he was gunned down in the streets of Medellín. To allow private armies, even if they are supposedly for self-defense, is to create a monster like the Hydra: If you cut off one head, two more grow back”, Abadfeb writes.
When the State breaks down, here’s what happens:
- The state is only able to guarantee security and the rule of law only in certain areas, whcih tend to be the big cities
- The farther away you get from cities, the more likely the few police officers around are corrupt, judges are threatened by local dictators and their private armies, and bribery keeps anyone else in authority from doing anything.
Although Abadfeb is writing about Colombia and Mexico, this sounds very much like what happened in the Soviet Union after the collapse. Back then (and even now) you’re better off in Moscow than out in the country.
This is also what happened in the dozens of agricultural societies that collapsed as described in my book review of Turchin’s Secular Cycles.
Colombia’s Warning for Mexico. Hector Abadfeb. Feb 13, 2014. New York Times.
Most everyone agrees: The only thing worse than killing is being killed. If our lives are threatened, we have the right to defend ourselves, with force if necessary. In a civilized society, that defense is delegated to the state.
Vigilante self-defense groups arose to protect people in Colombia in the 1990s.
Because the state was losing the war against the guerrilla army — essentially a drug cartel — and drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private army, the state gave the green light to these groups. They were made up of agricultural laborers, trained by soldiers, and financed by landowners and agribusinesses. When the vigilantes began to extort money from the very businessmen who were financing them, they were declared illegal. But it was already too late. They had become clandestine paramilitary groups, using the same weapons as those they were fighting: kidnapping, murder of innocents, drug trafficking.
What has been going on these last few months in Mexico, in the western state of Michoacán, makes me fear that the same thing is happening there today. “Autodefensas” have organized to drive out the vicious local drug cartel, called the Knights Templar. After first demanding that the vigilantes disband, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has now sanctioned them as part of the Rural Defense Corps — at least nominally under the control of the military.
Sometimes the United States — which badly misunderstands Latin American realities — asks for elimination of illicit crops, total war on drugs or extermination of guerrilla forces. The most obedient governments ignore what might be real solutions — like cutting off the source of the cartels’ enormous wealth by legalizing drugs — and instead attempt to carry out these requests. They send their national armies to undertake the thankless task of fighting against their own compatriots. That’s what Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s previous president, tried.
But these wars to the death always fail.
This is what we learned in Colombia: When the state is not present, it is local tyrants who take power and brutally impose their rules, which are nothing more than the defense of their privileges. The old Hobbesian concept, that the natural state of mankind is that man is a wolf to man, seems confirmed in these involuntary Latin American anarchist experiments. The strongest and richest wolf (from trafficking drugs or illegal mining) dominates the other wolves.
The vigilantes appear to be a cure — they are seen as saviors — but in reality they are part of the illness, one more illegal army, acting without restraints and financed by dirty money.
Héctor Abad is the author of “Oblivion: A Memoir.” This essay was translated by Anne McLean from the Spanish.