Mexican citizens take security into their own hands

The following was written by SFL blog team member Zachary Bartsch, a PhD student at George Mason University. He also blogs on economics and philosophy at

“Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations… if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.”   -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

In Democracy in America,  Alexis de Tocqueville described a society  where interested citizens came together  to fill a need or promote a common interest.  He marveled at how these associations sprung up all over the country and without any unified directorate to command them.  People saw problems and decided to solve them together.  South of the border in Mexico, associations of the same type are blossoming  in areas where their government has failed them.

In the Mexican state of Michoacan, the drug cartel known as The Knights Templar has emerged as a mafia-like gang of iron-fisted extortionists.  They tax the locals in every aspect of life.  Owners of farms, taco stands, and even jukeboxes have lighter purses after a visit from The Knights Templar.  If they’re lucky, money is all they lose.  People who neglect to pay the ‘taxes’ are beaten, executed, or have their daughters and wives abducted in lieu of their “debt”.

So where are the police?  Even most libertarians think that some level of basic security should be provided by governments.

In the case of Michoacan, the police belong to the gangs.  If the police feel pressured to keep up appearances, then they might arrest a gang member or two.  But they are typically released soon thereafter.  Local and state governments are worse than impotent against the gangs. They are complicit.

What about the national government?  It turns out that President Enrique Peña Nieto, who recently won the national election last December, actually included a drug gang policy in his platform.  What was that policy? Nieto ran on a goal of decreasing violence through less direct confrontation.  That’s politico-speak for “Less fighting between the military and the gangs because the military is going home”.

Since the people of Michoacan aren’t getting much in exchange for their tax dollars, they decided to take matters into their own hands.  Regular people of all ages and backgrounds are forming private security groups made up of volunteers who are sick of seeing their families and neighbors tortured and killed by The Knights Templar.  And their making a good go of it.

A misfit bunch of both men and women wearing home-made tee-shirts and brandishing hunting rifles emerge from their shops and homes upon the ring of the town bell or sight of a flare and converge on any gang member who is attempting to extort a resident in their town.  And they’ve been so successful that they now have the resources to police the countryside in armored cars and with AK-47’s – courtesy of confiscations from The Knights Templar.

What is the libertarian supposed to think of this?  When we advocate for smaller government which can do a few things relatively well, aren’t we supposing that it will actually work?  What room for government is left when it can’t do the simple things like provide for basic security?

Local voluntarism has made some parts of Michoacan more secure and peaceful than they’ve been in a long time.  Just think of what else could be achieved if Mexico’s government took a backseat on other issues as well.  Maybe an absent government would be the best thing for other public services like education or healthcare.

So long as bad government continues to function, we can continue to expect bad results.  The Mexican experience demonstrates that an ineffective government is the most dangerous kind. And counter intuitively, an absent government may be the best.