Small Wars Journal

Privatization of Violence: Legal and Illegal Armed Actors in the Mexican Center of Gravity in the New Wars

Tue, 07/16/2013 - 5:11pm

Privatization of Violence: Legal and Illegal Armed Actors in the Mexican Center of Gravity in the New Wars[i]

Magdalena Defort


This article provides insights into the privatization of violence and the legal as well as illegal armed actors’ activities in the new wars. Despite the fact the article is focused on the Mexican hot spots in terms of violence and warfare between the armed groups, it contains references to other centers of gravity of violence in the world. The armed actors with different nature, tasks, and modus operandi are the important points in this analysis. In addition, the problem of the legalization of armed parties like the community police is reviewed in this essay.

Overview: Understanding the privatization of violence

In developing countries, privatization of violence is a paradigm of the inefficiency and inability of the state to guarantee the security of its citizens. In Mexico, the self-defense units (autodefensas) and the community police/guards (policía comunitaria) are civilian armed parties that employ violence according to their own judgment. In contrast, many developed countries’ military and security companies or firms do not try to replace the monopoly of the state by using violence. Rather they utilize additional tools that can offer better services with more sophisticated weapons, training, and strategic methods to counter violence. In addition, the private companies provide their services at a purportedly cheaper price.

The privatization of violence is connected to the practice of privateering which is defined in international law as “vessels belonging to private owners, and sailing under a commission of war empowering the person to whom it is granted to carry on all forms of hostility, which is permissible at sea by the usage of war”.[ii] The privatization of violence is a characteristic of new wars. According to Mary Kaldor, “the new wars emerged at the end of the Cold War and was accelerated by the process of global dislocation. It is a new type of violence motivated by different reasons such as identity of politics; meaning that an armed party claims to power over another group on the basis of its identity. In addition, the battlefield is found everywhere and the combat rules do not exist in new wars”.[iii] These new forms of power struggle are motivated by traditional nationalism, tribalism, or religious fundamentalism in the regions such as Africa and/or the Middle East.

However, in Latin America, the new wars display a different economic background. In this case violence is controlled by rebels or warlords seeking to exploit global illicit economic flows.  These actors are criminal cartels and gangs linked to transnational organized crime networks. The underworld struggle for a domination of territory and the intimidation of government imposing the terror on society is the modus operandi of the warriors of the new wars. Presently, Latin American warlords are not ideological or religious fanatics, but rather the leaders of criminal groups organized as the entrepreneurs, producers, illicit traffickers; and in many cases, the death squads who use private violence for economic goals. Furthermore, Mexico is a center of gravity of the new wars in which every armed group pursues violence for its own ends.  The term “center of gravity” was defined by military strategist Carl von Clausewitz as “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”[iv] Hence, in this particular Mexican scenario, the organized criminal cartels and gangs accumulate and strengthen their “freedom of action” and “will to act” taking advantage of the weakness of the state structures of power in order to orchestrate private violence to gain absolute control over the territory. In this center of gravity of violence, an effect of the criminal organizations modus operandi, is that the other forces—the legal or illegal armed groups—gather to support, as well as to fight the criminals.       

In this new wars context, the government is not only unable to counter the spreading of organized violence, but also to effectively conduct warfare. For example, in Mexico, the armed forces and the police lost the war against the underworld. In general terms, not only in Mexico, but also in other parts of Latin America, the legal army has decayed, particularly in areas of conflict. Cuts in military spending, declining prestige, shortage of equipment, inadequate training have all contributed to the profound loss of morals. Apart from this, in many developing countries, the military either no longer receives training or regular pay or their salaries are very low. Thus, the regular armed forces and the police get sucked into being the protectors of those criminals who corrupt them. Currently, in Mexico, the corruption among the State’s armed forces is a main cause of the new war with organized violence.

Arming the Civil Society: The Need for Self-Help

Private violence would also be defined as a struggle between the state and the armed actors employed by others or by themselves in order to protect the unarmed people against the violence caused by the underworld actors. The emergence of vigilantism is a relatively new phenomenon in the context of the wars on illicit trafficking where the government is incapable of protecting the civil society. For example, vigilantism presumes the existence of the state, and of formal legal and other procedures involving the use of force over the state, which normally claims a monopoly. In general terms, the vigilantism emerges in “frontier” zones where the state is viewed as ineffective or corrupt, and it often constitutes an implicit criticism of the failure of state machinery in order to meet the needs of those who resort to it. In addition, it is a form of self-help with varying degrees of violence, which is activated instead of such machinery, against criminals and others whom the actors perceive as undesirable, deviant, and the “public enemy.”[v]   

Presently, illegal armed groups with different natures, modus operandi, and goals have multiplied in a panorama of the Mexican new wars: “paramilitary groups,” “vigilantes,” “self-defense squads,” and “community police”—all of which operate sometimes in conflict or sometimes in cooperation. Apart from these groups that act beyond the law, the military and the police are participants in this warfare. 

Paramilitarism can be characterized by groups that are often composed of redundant soldiers, or even whole units of defending soldiers, like the brigades in Iraq and more recently in Syria. These groups may consist of the following: criminals, as in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq or volunteers, some of which are often unemployed. Also, they rarely wear a uniform, which makes them difficult to distinguish from non-combatants.[vi] These armed groups with military structure are willing to replace the state. They offer protection of life and are able to pay for their services. Originally, some paramilitary groups were created by the military to carry out “dirty” work against civilian people, which armed forces cannot do. As time passed, paramilitary squads started to work for the entrepreneurs. They were trained by the mercenaries that are contracted by their “vassals.”

Frequently, the paramilitary groups work for the illicit traffickers as their personal guards, e.g., Arturo Guzmán Decena’s paramilitary group, later known as the Zetas organization linked to the Osiel Cárdenas Guillén’s Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo). In general terms, they have lacked ideological support, in contrary to the insurgencies or revolutionary movements. Emergence of these groups is a response by the citizens of the growing fragility of the government. However, at the time, the paramilitary actors became corrupted and morphed into the criminal groups that act outside the law that generates a violence with which they should supposedly fight. In the 60s and the 70s, the repressive military and authoritarian governments in Central and South America established paramilitary forces known as the death squads, who “cleansed” society from “public enemies”: groups that could be hostile to the government. The death squads were the parties composed by the former police and/or military officers who made the extra-legal activities enjoying total impunity and protection by the government. In addition to the above groups, the following groups contain other armed actors:

Self-defense units (autodefensas) are composed of volunteers who try to defend civilian residents of a community against an aggression by organized crime. They are not a part of the structures of their local community government; nor do they receive money for their services. Rather, they are the self-declared armed people chosen to conduct their private violence against the underworld or other insurgent groups. Such units are very difficult to sustain because of inadequate resources. Where they are not defeated, they often end up cooperating with other armed groups and getting sucked into conflict, e.g., the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-AUC) morphed into a paramilitary group.  

Vigilantism (vigilantes) involves armed groups employed by themselves or by other parts of a community in order to protect the residents of a village or colony against violence orchestrated by illicit traffickers. They are not always residents of the community in which they are in charge. The vigilantes are armed with old hunting rifles, shotguns, sticks, and machetes — the sight of uniformed militiamen brandishing AK-47s and other powerful weapons. Frequently, possession of powerful weaponry by the regular civilians points out their linkage to criminal organizations.       

Community guards/police forces (guardia/policía comunitaria) are groups formed by the men and women armed with stones, handles, crystals or even hunting rifles in order to protect their locality against criminals, e.g., drug cartels. The community guards are residents that are supposed to protect. In addition, they are legally chosen by an assembly of their community. In the Mexican indigenous villages, an existence of the community guards as a structure of local government has been a centuries-old tradition such as Oaxaca dating to the 16th century.  

According to the International Crisis Group, Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide last findings, nine of 31 of Mexico’s states are reported to have the existence of vigilantes.[vii] However, the Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas reports higher numbers: 13 states and 68 municipalities[viii] are “protected” by militias. Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Jalisco, state of Mexico, and Michoacán are the only hot spots defended by their civilian residents. Emergence of the vigilante squads is a response to an increased violence not able to be combated by the government’s way. The common denominator is outrage over the government’s indifference to the violence afflicting their communities—whether the violence is perpetrated by the army, the police, or the cartels. According to George W. Grayson, in the absence of trustworthy cops, citizens are taking the law into their own hands[ix].

Due to the private security services such as the CONVIVIR, civil patrols were legitimized under Law 48. Although the first Colombian civilian patrols were trained by military and police forces in 1965. But, the rampant violence resulted from both legal and illegal armed groups. Apart from this, the vigilantes were opposed to turning in their weapons after revoking their licenses due to numerous charges. 

Fortunately, in Mexico, such powerful narco-guerrilla like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC) that could cause the proliferation of other armed actor who would try to eliminate this group, as the AUC in Colombia, do not fully exist. Perhaps, an exception could be the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional-EZLN) that operates only in Chiapas, one of the Southern States of Mexico. But, despite the fact, its military potential is incomparable with the FARC’s power, and proliferation, which the armed groups known as the “Red Masks” and “Peace and Justice” portrayed as the death squads emerged to fight the EZLN. According to the Zapatista movement’s members, this paramilitary group was formed by the ex-soldiers who act on behalf of the State. In the face of rampant violence provoked by the uncontrolled illegal armed groups’ activities, an early warning system should be activated.

In Mexico, an acceleration of the spread of armed vigilante groups is a sign of the state's failure to provide security. That being said, according to Francisco López Bárcenas, this phenomenon is “an extreme expression of the defense of their territories and communities against the organized crime, caciques and mega projects.”[x] Furthermore, the author argues, that there is a difference between the community police and self-defense entities. The first group is an expression of the indigenous traditional structures of government. The second group is a spontaneous security response to the emerging circumstances.[xi] Thus, the indigenous tradition of defense of the territory by its armed residents (community police) morphs, under specific circumstances, into a phenomenon of the self-defense squads. Despite the fact, presently, the Mexican poorer regions that have not a tradition in forming the community police unities, it’s done it to fill the State’s authority vacuum. 

As the groups develop, they have looked to establish ties with the authorities in some regions where the self-defense forces have worked with political figures and the military. Nevertheless, there is a risk that these armed actors collaborate in concert with the military or police forces that are deeply infiltrated by criminal groups, particularly in Mexico. In other cases, some members of the community such as the police or the self-defense unity work directly for the cartels. Furthermore, this self-help group can transform into the paramilitary squads providing services to organized crime. The best example is “the Michoacán Family” that initiated its activity as vigilantes of its own locality and morphed into a powerful drug cartel. Finally, criminals can be disguised as the community police, which recently occurred with the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel-CNGJ), who acted as the vigilantes of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, known as La Ruana, in the Municipality of Buenavista Tomatlán, Michoacán.

In the initial state of formation of these criminal groups, they look for a base of social support that can be found in their community. Therefore, they offer their local security services by acting as vigilantes for the locality against an invasion of other criminal gangs. However, in time, they gradually take control over the locality imposing terror. These community police transformed into criminal groups taking advantage of being the vigilantes that gained trust of its residents and imposed exactly the same “order” rules in the “plaza,”[xii] as a rival cartel. Indeed, “the Michoacán Family” (La Familia Michoacana, LFM), “the Knights Templar” (Los Caballeros Templarios-CT), and “the Jalisco New Generation Cartel” or known as “the Matazetas” (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación- CJNG) are organizations that transformed from “vigilantes” who previously provided services to the all poor Michoacán’s people into the criminal parties. For example, the first one (LFM) was founded in 1980, and it’s unique because of its religious values. Initially, this group acted under the leadership of Nazario Moreno González (known as “the Craziest One,” “el Más Loco”) until he was killed by the police in 2010. One year later, this cartel supposedly was disbanded and most of its members became allies of Servando Gómez Martínez, the current leader of “the Knights Templar.” The second criminal unity (KT) proclaimed itself as a self-defense group under leadership of Servando Gómez Martínez’s (known as “La Tuta”), in 2011. Protection of the Michoacán State residents against the attacks of adversary drug cartels is “the Knights Templar” task. This criminal organization calls itself a “brotherhood” that acts following its own code. The third group (CJNG) is a self-declared paramilitary party that emerged in 2011. Its purpose is to eliminate the Zetas cartel and “restore” the order. The group operates in some Mexican states, such as Michoacán, Jalisco, and Veracruz.  The “Matazetas” helped the Gulf Cartel fighting the Zetas. In addition, this drug cartel also declared a war against “the Knights Templar.”

Interestingly, all these criminal organizations define themselves as the vigilantes of the poor people against organized violence. Ergo, they act under the vigilantism umbrella. All over the world, vigilantes complain that the official legal system has failed to satisfy their thirst for order, and a narrow focus on the law itself—whether “realist” or “idealist”—does not seem to have much to offer them. According to Richard Maxwell Brown, the vigilance committee has the highest respect for itself than for ill administrated law.[xiii]

Michoacán and Guerrero: A Center of Private Violence 

The Michoacán State, also known as the “Hot Land” (Tierra Caliente), is a farming region along the Pacific Coast that was famous not only for its avocados, limes, and melons, but also for meth labs and the presence of criminal organizations. This state became a center of gravity for violence and insecurity, due to the constant attacks and extortions of the CT cartel in order to gain control of the plaza, apart from the armed community squads who desperately try to defend their locality against the criminals’ assaults. Finally, the armed forces and marines were deployed to the center of gravity of this warfare camp. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s recent decision to send troops to the State of Michoacán is a continuation of the militarization of public security that was implemented by the former president Felipe Calderón in 2006. A decision to construct the military barracks in the Southern part of this State with a presence of armed corps could confirm a thesis about the existence of a failed state.  The military appear to lay siege to the “Tierra Caliente” to “restore” order.

The same anarchical scenarios emerged in other Mexican states where it seemed that their authorities were under the cartels’ control. In this extremely tragic situation, the militarization of the zone could only be a short-term solution, because after the military leave this “restored” zone, the danger exists in which the situation would return to the previous state. Hence, the residents’ trust in the police and military, as the unique legal forces able to establish peace and security, is limited. The vigilantes who took the arms to defend their communities refuse to be disarmed due to a fear that when the military leave, the sense of helplessness will be back. Nevertheless, there is an inquiry in terms of a source of the purchase of the weaponry by the self-defense groups and the community police. A strong suspicion exists that the CJNG, the CT’s rival cartel, delivers armaments, despite the fact this is denied by them. Although, according to the vigilantes, the private persons sell them the arms for which they pay in parts. But, it is a very vague explication due to the poor economic background of the Michoacán’s residents, which economic sources came from working on camps. In addition, its frontier with the Jalisco State, a territory controlled by other powerful cartel—the CJNG, could support a thesis that the weapons are provided by this criminal group.

The vigilantes have clashed with security forces and have been accused by local governments of becoming involved in the drug trade. Apart from a possession of weaponry (assault rifles), they wear adequate uniforms such as the professional printed T-shirts labeled “policía comunitaria” (Community Police). That makes them a well-organized armed corps. It is a warning sign that this armed group could morph into criminal organization as it happened with other self-defense unities before. It could only be a defense mask of the new armed actors who implement their private violence that characterizes the new wars in which every warrior party conducts its own war forced by their motivation. In other less disastrous case, the vigilantes could start imposing their own rules of “law” on the locality. Interestingly, Michoacán does not have indigenous residents with a community police tradition.

Guerrero, another Mexican hot spot of violence, portrays a different cultural background. In contrary to Michoacán, this region has an indigenous population with a history of existence of the local self-defense squads elected by their committees. For example, not only in Ayutla de los Libres, but also throughout the Costa Chica (Small Coast) of the State of Guerrero, there is a tradition of community police that originated from the poor villages of Guerrero Montagne. These groups do not wear special uniforms, but regular clothes and their faces are covered by a scarf. The Union of People and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero-UPOEG) would be the first vigilante squads on the path to legalization. They are to be limited exclusively to playing the role of local defense guards in their community. Also, they would be trained in military and human rights matters. Co-cooperation with the State is a condition for the existence of this first legal vigilante union, despite the fact that in Mexico's Constitution (Chapter I, article 17) "categorically establishes that no one can carry out justice for themselves, nor use violence to reclaim their rights".[xiv] However, the debate over the legalization of the self-defense squads exists due to serious concerns over the potential abuse of the gained power (including fears the vigilantes could execute potential criminals outside the judicial process).

Thus, a creation of a judicial framework that defines the status of the new armed public security guards is indispensable. The critics of the military must remember that removing troops from the streets—in the absence of competent police—will likely lead to more crime victims taking the law into their own hands. This is a big step toward anarchy—a condition that would threaten the security of the United States and Central America. Consequentially, the complexity of the privatization of violence by different armed actors deserves a strong attention and monitoring. An armed civil society resulting from diverse motivations is potentially the beginning of complex militia activities.


Unfortunately, Mexico defined as a center of gravity of violence in this article, is not unique to the Latin American panorama where the legal, as well as illegal armed actors pursue private violence. Each of these parties claims that they protect their communities against organized crime or help to “cleanse” society from insurgents. Nonetheless, these self-defense groups, self-proclaimed guardians of community order, can in many cases be accused of being linked to criminal organizations.  Likewise community police, elected by their local residents with the same defense goals can also become co-opted by gangsters. On the other hand, the legal armed institutions—the military and the police—are challenged (in terms of capacity and the potential for human rights abuses) when seeking to restore the order and security. Rampant violence and insecurity profoundly eroded the social fabric. As a result, nobody knows whom to trust and who is a real guardian of the public order.

Apart from these armed actors, due to the frequent human abuses by the military and increasing violence in the streets, the president Peña Nieto plans to deploy a newly formed armed security force, a gendarmerie, into this center of gravity of violence at the end of 2013. The new force would be formed from the ex-military employed in the police tasks. This new paramilitary police will receive a reverse formation that the police deployed to combat the organized crime trained in military tactics. Despite the fact, the gendarmerie, as a public guard, is settled in the European tradition; it could be also a solution for the order and peace on the Mexican streets. Perhaps, it will fill a vacuum that exists between the police and regular armed forces that are ineffective due to inadequate training and capacity to face these new wars.[xv] But, the question remains whether this newly formed security forces will be able to resist getting sucked into underworld activities. At this moment, this question remains unanswered, but the probability exists; the Mexican government must simultaneously work on achieving transparency in governance while sustaining a series of judicial and economic reforms to be effective in removing the “root causes” of this disastrous situation. In any case, without systemic reform, neither legalizing the vigilantes nor formation and deployment of the gendarme forces will stop these new wars conducted by multiple armed actors who succumb to the center of gravity of Mexico’s private violence.   


[i] An idea about this article emerged as a part of work on a project with a similar topic pursued by its author.

[ii] Kinsey, Christopher, Corporate Soldiers and International Security. The Rise of Private Military Companies, (US, Routledge, 2006), 36.

[iii] Kaldor, Mary, New and Old Wars. Organized Crime in a Global Era, (US, Stanford University Press, 2012), 72.

[iv] Von Clausevitz, Carl, On War, (New Jersey, University Princeton, 1984), 80.

[v] Abrahams, Ray, Vigilant and the State, (UK, Polity Press, 1998), 9.

[vi] Kaldor, Op.cit., 98.

[vii] “Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico” in International Crisis Group. Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide, 28 May 2013. At  

[viii] InSight Crime. Organized Crime in the Americas, 04 March 2013. At

[ix] Grayson, George, W., Threat Posted by Mounting Vigilantism in Mexico, (US, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2011), 2. 

[x] Castellanos, Laura, “Autodefensa, expresión extrema”, ElUniversal mx, (23 February 2013). Available at:   

[xi] Ibidem.

[xii] Territory dominated by an organized criminal group.

[xiii] Brown, Richard, M., Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, (US, Oxford University Press, 1975), 8.  


[xv] See Sullivan, John P., “The benefits of a paramilitary force in Mexico,” Baker Institute Blog/Houston Chronicle (Chron), 04 January 2013 at and Hope, Alejandro, “Why Mexico Should Open the Gendarmerie Debate,” InSight Crime, 17 May 2013 at


Abrahams, Ray, Vigilant and the State, UK, Polity Press, 1998.

Brown, Richard, M., Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, US, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Castellanos, Laura, “Autodefensa, expresión extrema”, ElUniversal mx, (February 23, 2013). Available at:

Grayson, George, W., Threat Posted by Mounting Vigilantism in Mexico, US, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2011. 

“Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico” in International Crisis Group. Working to Prevent Conflict Worldwide, May 28, 2013. Available at:

Kaldor, Mary, New and Old Wars. Organized Crime in a Global Era, (US, Stanford University Press, 2012).

Von Clausevitz, Carl, On War, (New Jersey, University Princeston, 1984).

Categories: Mexico - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Magdalena Defort served as an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and as a Research Fellow at the Center for a Free and Secure Society. She recently received a master’s degree in National Security from the David Morgan Graduate School of National Security. She previously served  as a Scholar/Researcher in Latin American security issues at the University of Miami, Coral Gables where she directed an interdisiplinary research group on Latin American issues.. She holds a Ph.D. from the Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and master’s degree from Universytet Wroclawski (Poland). She participated in post–doctoral studies at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (UNAM). Magdalena is the author of five books and various articles published in scholarly journals. Defort’s research interests include terrorism, drug trafficking, insurgencies, civil-military relations in Latin America and military collaborations in countering the new threats in the Americas. 


Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 07/19/2013 - 8:18pm


Thank you for imparting the wisdom of someone who really understands, and appreciates, Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Your ten years down here were obviously well spent. As I read through your thoroughly documented analysis, I wondered whether another configuration of violence might be taking place in México. While I am not sure I would say that el presidente Calderón-Hinojosa lost his declared war against drugs, he surely did not win it. A large part of that has to do with the questionable war on drugs north of the border; that hairy topic is for another discussion.

Arguably, el presidente Peña-Nieto is continuing this war on drugs but focussing more on bringing down the violence rather than trying to enforce an interdiction that will be difficult to achieve as long demand continues in the U.S. at or near the same levels. The privatization of violence may be less about corruption, of which there is plenty in México, than a frank acknowledgement by the government that it does not have a monopoly of violence. Consequently, the Peña-Nieto Administration may be cordoning off areas of civility, within which the government maintains police power, permitting the narco-on-narco violence to continue.

The privatized violence then is not a source of extra-legal anarchy but a civilian trip-wire that defines, by its presence, those undrawn borders between civilized México and her netherworld. If the narco-traficantes were to seek territorial expansion beyond that undrawn border into civilized México, the term narco-insurgency would then apply. That violation of an (albeit) undefined border would provoke an armed civilian response of privatized violence. At that point, the power of the police and army then would come into play, somewhat like a counter-insurgency, to push the narco-traficantes back to where they belong -- their private Hell in their super-heated bullet-based netherworld.

Perhaps one could view this alternative configuration as community policing with some gumption.

Thank you again, Magdalena, for a thoughtful article that deals with a difficult subject: the blurry line between permissible and impermissible privatized violence in México.

Ned McDonnell