As Vigilante Groups Grow in Mexico, So Do Concerns: Interview with Steven Dudley

A member of a self-defense group in Michoacán, Mexico, December 19, 2013. (Ignacio Juarez/Esther Vargas/Flickr)

Self-defense groups have proliferated across Mexico in recent years, especially in Michoacán, where the absence of adequate state security has allowed the Knights Templar cartel to brutalize its citizens since 2011. Last week, I spoke with Steven Dudley, Senior Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, Washington D.C., about the legality of these vigilante groups and their growing impact on the communities they work in. Cartel violence is a main focus of Mr. Dudley’s organization, InSight Crime, which tracks organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Over the past year, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, vigilante or self-defense groups hav­­e increased against local cartels. Can you give us an overview of why these groups came about in Mexico, and how effectively they've curtailed violence?

With regards to the vigilantes—or self-defense groups, as they like to be called—there are a number of different types that have emerged. Probably some of the oldest ones are based in indigenous communities that have a constitutional right to create self-defense groups. These are groups that are based mostly in places such as Guerrero, which is a neighboring state of Michoacán, but in other places of the country as well. 

Other groups have formed that are much more along the lines of vigilante groups in the sense that they are perhaps lower on the socioeconomic scale but have been victimized steadily over the last few years, and have suffered largely because there is very little state presence—and then, when there is state presence, that state presence is often compromised by illicit interests or illegal groups. 

And then there are other groups that are emerging because they're a result of larger business interests being plagued by some of the same things—local criminal groups that are extorting them in a systematic way, or extorting some of their purveyors, or some of their transport contractees, and other types of illicit activities affecting their business in some way, shape, or form. 

Then there's a fourth group, a group that is more aligned with other rival criminal interests. So, they're groups that are seeking to take advantage of the situation and occupy the space that a group like the Knights Templar currently occupies.

How Will Russia Protect Its Interests in Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimr Putin and former Ukranian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2008. Tymoshenko was imprisoned in 2011; today, the Ukrainian Parliament voted in favor of allowing her release, a sign of the waning influence of Ukraine's current president. (Jedimentat44/Flickr)

The last several days have been among the blackest in contemporary Ukrainian history. Battles between protesters and Ukrainian police units have resulted in nearly 100 dead and hundreds seriously injured. Moreover, there are rumors that some Ukrainian militia (a form of police), security services, and even the army (especially in the Western part of the country) have converted to the protesters’ side. 

All of this, in the very worst scenario, may lead to civil war, which would seriously threaten Russian interests in Ukraine. Ukraine is especially important to Russia for geopolitical and economic reasons, in addition to the deep cultural and historical ties between the countries, which is why Russia is extremely interested to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence. But all those strong ties mean that a persistent unstable situation in Ukraine may have serious negative consequences, even for Russia. 

This unrest is especially threatening in a few key spheres. First and foremost, Ukraine is a transit state for Russian gas—in 2013, 53% of the gas sold to Europe was transported through Ukraine. The states also cooperate on defence and in their aerospace industries. From a military standpoint, Russia is concerned with its ability to maintain the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol—the second largest port in Ukraine—as its other base in the Black Sea region is in Novorossiysk, Russia, which, although adequately developed, has weather conditions that are much worse.

Revolutionary Road Looks Precarious, Yet Tunisia Offers Beacon of Hope

The flags of Tunisia, Libya, and (in the background, right) Egypt fly at a crowded demonstration in Tahrir Square,
Cairo, February 25, 2011.

Anyone looking at North Africa and the Middle East today would be forgiven for thinking that the Arab Spring has rapidly turned into a bitter winter. The revolutionary road embarked upon by a number of countries looks ever more precarious. Syria is still being torn apart by civil war, in Libya the government is struggling to impose its authority, and Egypt appears to be experiencing a reversal of the democratic gains it had made as the "deep state" consolidates its position. Yet, within this overwhelmingly gloomy picture, recent developments in Tunisia are cause for optimism.

Tunisia provided the spark for the Arab uprisings three years ago with the self-immolation of Mohamad Bouazizi in Tunisia’s neglected interior. As the transition got underway, hopes were high for this small North African country. Tunisia’s domestic situation seemed to augur well for the transition process. The country’s largely Arab and Muslim population was well-educated and traditionally orientated towards moderation. Indeed, promising first steps were made toward democratic transition, with free and fair elections, and the establishment of a transitional government tasked with drafting a new constitution. Economically, the country’s lack of natural resources seemed to be compensated by its vibrant tourist industry.

However, initial optimism was dented as the country became mired in political crisis during 2013, following the assassination of opposition figures Chokri Belaid, secretary-general of the Unified Nationalist Democratic Party, and Mohammed Brahmi, general coordinator of the Popular Movement and a member of Parliament. In what became a highly polarized political environment, a series of mass strikes and violent protests against the government ensued, leading to the suspension of the drafting of the constitution in July and calls for a new head of government.

Euphoria About South Sudan Blinded Many to Impending Violence: Interview with Jok Madut Jok

A security sweep of the UN Tomping compound in Juba, currently serving as a camp for internally displaced persons, January, 14, 2014. (UN Photo/Isaac Billy)

According to Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, the "near collapse" of South Sudan so soon after independence was difficult to predict, despite being monitored by diplomatic missions such as the United Nations and the African Union. He said the international community was blindsided by a “very strong euphoria within South Sudan about independence.” 

He said that the people of South Sudan want an immediate cessation of violence, and that mediators working on the peace process, "need to work on more vigorously to immediately monitor and make sure that the cessation of hostilities agreement that was signed on January 23 is adhered to, and that it is enforced.”

What should not be done, he added, is “to announce yet another peacebuilding or reconciliation program that will flop. And any plan that you institute at the moment while people are still fighting is surely going to flop—and when it fails, it makes the situation worse.”

“So, there are preconditions to building sustainable peace in a society and that is, first of all, the current insecurity has to end first because you cannot reconcile people who are still shooting at each other.” 

The second round of peace talks in Addis Ababa between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and the rebels came to an impasse yesterday over unmet rebel demands, and the talks have as of yet failed to resume.

Dr. Jok said, “South Sudan is a country that is emerging from a very long, treacherous,  violent, and destructive war; that it did not hit the ground running is not a surprise. And that, like many other countries that have emerged in the world, it should be assisted to find its feet going forward.”

He said the best thing to do now “is to go for a more deliberate, honest, and slow peace process that is sequential, beginning with a ceasefire, going to humanitarian access, going to political settlement, and going for strategic institutional reforms that would make for a more stable country going forward.”

Dr. Jok said that civil society is an important element in the sustainability of peace. "And it is not just the organized civil society. There are also elements in the society—including the chiefs, the traditional authorities; including spiritual leaders; including women's groups and professional associations; all of them represent the biggest bulk of South Sudanese society, and if the peace agreement is going to be something that every Southerner is subscribing to and committed to, they have to be given a say at the peace talks through their representatives."

The interview was conducted by John Hirsch, Senior Adviser to the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


John Hirsch: Good afternoon. Today we're speaking to Dr. Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, an independent research organization based in Juba, South Sudan that seeks to promote a more peaceful, just, and prosperous society by improving governance policies and practices in South Sudan. 

The crisis that has erupted in South Sudan on December 15 of last year had been simmering for several months within the government and the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]. In your opinion, what early action could the international community have taken to prevent the violence and its dire human rights and humanitarian consequences? 

Jok Madut Jok: Yes, thank you. The crisis that started on December 15, 2013 was indeed a shock to a lot of people and it was very difficult to predict the nature of that eruption—even though people thought that it was likely to happen following the July 2013 reshuffle in which the vice president and several ministers were removed from the cabinet; and following all the disagreements that had been going on within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. And so while this was seen to be just a matter of time before something significant happens, it was difficult to predict the nature of it. 

But now that it has reached this level where so many people have died and so many people have been displaced—10,000 people are reported dead and 1 million people reported displaced internally and another 80,000-100,000 becoming refugees in neighboring countries—it is a significant question about how the international community could have prevented it, or how it could now respond that now that this has happened. In terms of predicting and preventing it, I think we had all the diplomatic missions—we had the United Nations, we had the African Union—watching the situation. And they were also blindsided by the fact that there was a very strong euphoria within South Sudan about independence. And that South Sudan nearly collapsing so soon after independence was not something that people thought was going to happen. 

Without International Support, Yemen Could Slide Backwards

A meeting during the National Dialogue Conference discusses the issue of South Yemen, December 13, 2013. (credit: NDC)

After two years of intense dialogue about its present and future, Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) reached a broad agreement in January on the basic principles and norms that would be enshrined in a new constitution, including changing the current centralized form of governance by having a federal state based on principles of democracy, equal citizenship, and the rule of law.

Munir Al Mawari, an independent member of the NDC, said it was very hard to end the conference—it went four months longer than intended—but he called it “a big success.”

“My assessment is that if we can implement these articles [from the conference], Yemen will be in good shape,” he said.

However, he had strong words of caution about the former regime. "From my experience in the NDC, they did many things to make it hard for us to conclude the conference." He said the former regime still has the “power to destroy Yemen if they decide to,” but “they are afraid of the international accountability.”

“Without the involvement of the Security Council and the international community, even if we have a social contract, we're not going to be able to have elections or implement the constitution itself,” he said.

Mr. Al Mawari said the former regime, which lost power after the 2011 revolution, stole money and property from the people of Yemen, and this money could be used to destroy the country. “The money in Yemen is more dangerous than weapons,” he said. He recommended that the international community intervene to freeze this money, “not only because we need it in Yemen, but also because this money is being used against the country, against the outcome of the NDC, against stability.”

Farea Al-muslimi, a 23-year-old Yemeni activist and writer who also participated in this interview, agreed that this is not the time for the international community to disengage, and that the resurgent regimes in Syria and Egypt could inspire Yemen’s former regime, adding that, "if there isn't concrete action by the international community to stop the former regime from trying to go back in a time machine, I think there is a huge danger that Yemen will collapse at any second.”

“Yemenis will be highly influenced by the commitment of the international community to this transition—political-wise, economical-wise, and most importantly, sanctions-wise on those who might hinder this transition,” he said.

Mr. Al-muslimi said that one very good outcome of the national dialogue process was the inclusivity of women and youth from outside and within traditional political parties. “I am not usually a big fan of quotas in Yemen,” he said, “but I think the good thing with the national dialogue is, for the first time, there was a political entity in Yemen that was the first to include new actors at the table.

“And this is connected to, somehow, the international role in this. I don't think it would have been possible to include youth, women in the national dialogue if it was not for the international pressure and pressuring political parties. Despite what we think (whether successful or not) about the national dialogue, that is definitely an aspect: that it was successful in including youth and women to a huge degree that has not happened before in Yemen.” 

The interview was conducted by Waleed Alhariri, a research assistant at the International Peace Institute.

Waleed Alhariri: Today, I welcome Farea Al-muslimi and Munir Al Mawari to the Global Observatory. Farea Al-muslimi is a 23-year-old Yemeni activist and writer. He cofounded and chaired several youth initiatives in Yemen since 2007. In 2013, he was listed by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the 100 top global thinkers. 

And Munir Al Mawari is an independent member of the National Dialogue Conference in Yemen, and a powerful voice in the team of transitional justice during the conference. Thank you for speaking with us today. 

My first question will go to Munir. What is your assessment of the results of the recently concluded National Dialogue Conference in Yemen? 

Munir Al Mawari: I believe it was a big success. We were afraid that it would never end. It was hard to conclude the conference and to agree on anything, but at the end, we concluded the conference. It was supposed to be concluded in six month, but it took ten months. 

And we were lucky that some political powers did not mind passing on some suggestions and some articles, hoping from their end that the conference would never conclude. So, it was almost like that GCC initiative—they signed the initiative thinking that it will never be implemented, but, in the end, it was implemented. 

And the conference was very hard to conclude. But I think it is a big success, and we have now a roadmap. My assessment is that if we can implement these articles, Yemen will be in good shape.

Breaking the Crime Trap: Factoring Crime into Development Policy

Federal police during the arrest of a member of the Gulf
crime cartel in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. (Jesus Villaseca Pérez/Latitudes Press/Flickr)

Over ten years ago, in Breaking the Conflict Trap, Paul Collier and others made the case for better factoring civil war into development policy and practice. As a result, the mechanisms by which conflict traps societies in under-development are now well understood, and much development policy and practice attempts to address these factors. 

Yet today, criminal violence poses threats to human and international security that sometimes rival those posed by political violence. For example, homicide rates in Central America match those in the major global war zones. Just a few weeks ago, the UN Security Council adopted sanctions for the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo targeting the links between wildlife and resource trafficking, and ongoing conflict and fragility, in central Africa. 

A decade ago, we set about breaking the conflict trap; now, we must set about breaking the crime trap.

What is the Crime Trap?

Almost $1 trillion per year is drained from developing countries through illicit flows. That represents significant capital, siphoned away from licit economic growth and development, into private pockets, offshore havens, and underworld networks. But the development benefits lost as a result are probably worth significantly more than $1 trillion, once the foregone economic growth, reduced costs of borrowing, and other economic knock-on factors are taken into account. 

A 2011 World Bank report estimated, for example, that Central America lost 8% of its GDP through criminal violence. The World Economic Forum finds crime a major drag on business in the region. Illicit outflows coexist with pervasive corruption and criminality, and we know that these factors corrode social capital and state legitimacy, providing a further drag on development

In fact, we are still learning about the variety of unexpected negative impacts that crime has on sustainable development: just this week, research involving United Nations University’s Dr. David Wrathall was published in Science showing that narcotrafficking promotes deforestation and loss of biodiversity. 

Some people argue that crime generates local economic growth. In Africa, for example, some commentators have suggested that drug production and trafficking has fueled local economic growth and property development. Others tell a similar story about Somali piracy

Atrocities in South Sudan Feed Cycle of Violence: Interview with Ivan Šimonović

The South Sudanese flag displayed at an independence celebration, July 2011. (Arsenie Coseac/Flickr)

"There is no doubt any more that both sides to the conflict [in South Sudan] have been involved in numerous human rights violations," said Ivan Šimonović, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.

Mr. Šimonović visited the country last month to investigate violations resulting from the intense fighting that broke out in mid-December between rebel forces and the government. He met with survivors of a mass shooting in a police station, where hundreds of victims were shot, as well as with survivors of a massacre of women in a church compound.

"We have to address human rights violations no matter who commits them, whether it’s pro-government or opposition forces," he said. "Our position is impartiality." 

Mr. Šimonović said the current situation in the country is "very bad and a matter of great concern."

“What started as a political struggle [between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar] has degenerated into an ethnic conflict, and, as a result, thousands have been killed,” Mr. Šimonović said, adding that the humanitarian situation is also very dire. Over 800,000 people remain displaced.

Though a second round of peace talks began in Addis Ababa yesterday, Mr. Šimonović said that, for sustainable peace, “there is a long way to go, and it will require much more than bilateral dialogue between two forces that are in conflict now. It will require inclusion of civil society—of religious leaders, of elders, of women.” 

Mr. Šimonović said its highly important to address the social and economic underpinnings of the current crisis, and have an open dialogue. He said it is particularly important that there is freedom of expression and freedom of the press which "are violated at the moment."

Mr. Šimonović said that in human rights work, thorough investigation is crucial to reconciliation. “When I talked to displaced persons, to the victims, I noticed that they have completely different perceptions of how the conflicts started, who the victims and who the perpetrators are. And the difference is based on their ethnic affiliation—whether they are Nuer or Dinka.”

“So, for any sort of reconciliation, it is important that they know the facts: that both sides have been quite involved in human rights violations and committed crimes. However, for this to be accepted, you have to investigate individual cases of violations and report on them.”

Mr. Šimonović said a comprehensive report on the human rights violations committed in the country after December 15, 2013 will be released by the end of April 2014. 

The interview was conducted by Bianca Selway, research assistant in the peacekeeping program at the International Peace Institute.

Bianca Selway: Today, I welcome Ivan Šimonović to the Global Observatory. He is the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, heading OHCHR's (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) office in New York. 

My first question for you is: Last month, you visited South Sudan to look into cases of human rights violations during the fighting that broke out in mid-December 2013. What is the situation on the ground at the moment? 

Ivan Šimonović: The situation is very bad and a matter of great concern. What started as a political struggle has degenerated into an ethnic conflict, and, as a result, thousands have been killed. I myself had the opportunity to talk to victims of such crimes. For example, I met with survivors of a mass shooting in a police station, where hundreds of victims were shot, as well as survivors of a massacre of women in a church compound. 

Now, I think it's highly important to highlight that the United Nations has, I would say, [been] involved in an unprecedented protection of civilians exercise. We opened our gates to all civilians, and tens of thousands of them—currently about 80,000—have been under our protection. 

Now, let me finally say that the humanitarian situation is also very dire. We have about one third of the population desperately needing humanitarian assistance to sustain themselves. However, because of lack of access, because of fighting, because of looting of our stocks, we are not able to help them all. Food security is going to deteriorate. Because of fighting, quite a large part of the population in affected areas has not been able to tend to their crops. So, the situation is very difficult. 

Visualizing the Web of Armed Actors in Congo

A screenshot of a new data visualization shows in red the connections between the rebel group M23 and various armed actors. See the visualization in action >>

For more than two decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered from what is described as Africa's "great war." Two weeks ago, the United Nations Security Council renewed sanctions against the country. There are myriad factors fueling the country's protracted conflict, and there is a bewildering assortment of armed groups keeping the embers burning. But who, really, is driving the conflict on the ground? How do they operate? And why do efforts to bring peace so regularly fall flat?

Outsiders and insiders alike have devoted years to trying to understand the persistence of DRC's violence entrepreneurs. Many scholars have broached the issue from sociological, political, and other social science perspectives. And while their approaches have generated important insights, new thinking could help clarify the situation further still. A new dataset and interactive visualization that we created for the Stability journal could help shed some light on the protagonists of Congo's interlocking conflicts.

The multidimensional dataset features detailed information on hundreds of armed groups, political elites, businessmen, and others. The information is drawn exclusively from a 2012 UN Group of Experts report that documents shady financial networks and the illicit procurement of military equipment. We developed a user-friendly data visualization to map the links between them, consolidating complex links in a single convenient snapshot (see above image.)

For example, one of the key protagonists of DRC's latest round of fighting is the Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), a rebel group formed in April 2012 in the wake of a failed peace agreement penned a few years earlier. With ready access to military-style weaponry, stolen cobalt and copper, and ties to other Congolese militants, the M23 emerged as one of the most formidable fighting forces in the DRC. From the beginning, there was evidence that M23 was backed by extensive foreign support. 

The extent of assistance provided by foreign governments to the M23 has been the subject of much acrimony. Among the most controversial claims is that the rebels received direct military intelligence, assistance, and equipment from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. If the allegations are true, then governments in both countries are violating an international arms embargo. Beyond these well-known allegations, the visualization also shows the extent and variety of other armed groups and individuals intertwined with the M23, which has established pacts with armed groups in the Kivu, Ituri and Kasai-Occidental provinces of the DRC, for example. All the while, the M23 has carried out brutal attacks, executed prisoners of war, and recruited child soldiers.

The M23 movement quickly reached its apogee with the fall of the Congolese city of Goma on November 20, 2012. Within a year, the group experienced a similarly speedy demise with its defeat by Congolese armed forces and a new UN intervention brigade. In spite of plans to quickly disarm and demobilize the group, a UN Group of Experts found that a number of sanctioned M23 leaders were still moving about freely in Uganda. Adding insult to injury, the rebels attacked UN peacekeepers and also demonstrated continued ties to Rwanda, openly recruiting new members in that country despite declaring an end to their rebellion in November 2013.

Owing to an apparently resurgent M23, the Security Council unanimously voted to renew its arms embargo and sanctions against the DRC last month. It also urged the UN and member states to increase their vigilance against former M23 combatants to ensure that the rebels did not regroup or resume military activities. A challenge for the international community, however, is keeping track of the individuals, governments, and networks sustaining the M23 in the DRC and outside of it. 

The diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, and citizens working to bring peace to the DRC are only just beginning to appreciate the ways in which new technologies can change the landscape of peacebuilding. When prepared carefully, and with attention to local context, such tools may potentially revolutionize the way governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies understand and engage with questions of early warning and conflict prevention. By demonstrating the relationships between state and non-state actors and the manifold ways in which outsiders fuel civil wars, they can offer new ways to hold warring parties and recalcitrant armed groups to account.

Dr. Cathy Nagini has a PhD in medical biophysics with experience working in the DRC and on data visualizations. Robert Muggah has also worked across the Great Lakes and is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and directs research and policy at the SecDev Foundation. They co-authored the article in Stability with Mainak Jas and Hugo Fernandes.

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