Mexico: the right of civilian self-defense

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The emergence of community police and self-defense groups (las autodefensas) in thirteen of Mexico’s states is a major political event nationally, but also internationally. It is not every day that a sector of the population arms itself. Even more remarkable is what is happening in Michoacán: over a period of months, thousands of armed people pursuing groups of criminals and releasing territories from the control of mafias and drug traffickers. This armed organization is a great feat of the Mexican people, who have shown that their organization and will are stronger than the capitalist state.

The national and state governments together have been powerless to fight the criminals and bring security. (Nationally, the parties heading these governments have been the Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN, of Felipe Calderón, followed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, of Enrique Peña Nieto; in Michoacán, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD, followed by the PRI; and in Guerrero, the PRD.) However, the brave and organized masses have been able to accomplish this, while risking their lives every day.

A challenge to criminals and corrupt governments. Proceso reporter José Gil Olmos has said that what caught his attention about Michoacán’s autodefensas is their makeup, mainly young people between 18 and 20. It seems that many are agricultural workers who pick lemons and avocados and others are students or unemployed. However, the fact that some businesses give money to the autodefensas could confuse people about their essential meaning.

Among examples of masses arming themselves are many pages from the Mexican Revolution, begun in 1910. But I want to take up a more geographically distant episode — China from 1947 to 1949 — in order to find parallels allowing us to find explanations for Mexico in 2014.

But first, it should be noted that the Mexican bourgeoisie also experience the phenomenon of crime and insecurity, but has its own methods to deal with these problems if the capitalist State fails to protect it. The bourgeoisie pays private police who work for the hundreds of private security agencies that have mushroomed in recent years. The bottom line is that the capitalists have the money to buy security — and, in their minds, it’s just tough luck for the people who don’t.

Returning to the China example: China was invaded by the Japanese empire. The army of Chiang Kai-shek, a general who governed this “country of the dragon,” stood up to Japan. The key issue is that the armed and organized Chinese peasants, after years of terrible fighting, drove out the invaders. However, during the time that Chiang’s army operated, the revolutionaries of the period ensured a unity between these peasant masses — the real vanquisher of Japanese imperialism — and the national army, representing the Chinese bourgeoisie.

In the course of expelling the Japanese, peasants liberated large areas from Chinese landowners, whose practice was to brutally exploit the landless campesinos. After triumphing over the Japanese, the peasant masses did not want to surrender the liberated territories.

In short, these independently armed masses not only made a revolution of national liberation, but also an agrarian revolution when they kept the lands and cultivated them for themselves. Later, the new government led by Mao had to reluctantly nationalize the land to benefit the campesinos.

Peña Nieto, the PAN, the PRD, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and other bourgeois politicians feel horror at the prospect of an organized people, who, moreover, arm themselves independently. That is why all of them believe that the most important thing is to disarm the autodefensas. Stopping criminals interests them much less, or only insofar as it relates to disarming the people. This explains the military’s outrageous murder of four supporters of self-defense groups in the town of Antúnez.

However, this strategy of state repression has not worked against autodefensas in Michoacán. The people are not intimidated and have not retreated. On the contrary, according to José Gil Olmo, the self-defense groups remain armed, and more people are joining. Therefore, the current policy of Peña Nieto and PRI-PAN-PRD in Michoacán is not to repress the groups, but to make deals with them and to act as if they had already apprehended one of the leaders of the Knights Templar (a major drug cartel).

But elsewhere, as in Guerrero, state governments are still acting with the federal government to crack down on community policing. In the future, Michoacán’s autodefensas will also be repressed if they cannot be corrupted or institutionalized.

To come back to the issue of whether there are bourgeois sectors that support the self-defense groups: it is possible. But this does not rob this phenomenon of its subversive character against the “capitalist order.” However, it has its dangers. What is right and what can guarantee the independence of these groups is that poor people finance them. And, according to what is known, this is generally what happens, with the population giving the autodefensas food, water, protection in their homes, and vehicles.

Additionally, self-defense groups have a democratic internal organization that prevents the rise of “caudillismo,” in other words a few leaders doing as they please. Another position taken by the groups is to have a broader program, beyond the commitment to getting rid of criminals. They hold that the arming of the people must be permanent and autonomous because municipal, state, and federal police are infected by corruption and infiltrated by crime. This situation has resulted in narco-states in many regions of the country. It’s clear to everybody that all the bourgeois political parties, to a greater or lesser degree, have ties to the narcos.

Solidarity needed. Another crucially urgent issue is the need for the widespread movement of the armed masses to come together with another great movement of recent months, the teachers’ struggle. But Section 18 of the teachers’ union in Michoacán, controlled or managed by the PRD (also by AMLO?), hasn’t demonstrated solidarity with the autodefensas and community police forces or given them any real support. Neither have the sections in Guerrero and Oaxaca.

Going forward, both the insurgent teachers and the entire independent labor movement should demand the liberation of Nestora Salgado, commander of Olinalá’s community police, and of all her fellow prisoners unjustly incarcerated — and, at the same time, show support for Michoacán’s autodefensas.

Cuauhtémoc Ruiz is the founder of the Mexican Partido Obrero Socialista and editor of its publication, La Pluma. His most recent book (in search of an editor) is China: State Property, Capitalism and Insurgent Workers.

Related story: The uphill fight to free Nestora Salgado

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