Reuters

Are the drug wars to blame for violence against Mexico's federal agents?

It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2004 when three Mexican federal agents were camped in a grey Ford Focus near an elementary school on the outskirts of Tláhuac, about 20 miles southeast of Mexico City’s Centro Historico.

The agents had been on this beat for weeks -- assigned to stake out nearby houses where small-time drug dealers allegedly operated. As they occasionally did, one agent pulled out a video camera for surveillance purposes.

What these men didn’t know was that false rumors had recently circulated that they were kidnappers targeting children in the community. Locals would later say they contacted police about the suspicious men in the Focus but, as usual, the police did nothing. This section of Tláhuac -- the San Juan Ixtlayopan neighborhood -- housed more than 30,000 people, yet the local police force employed only 12 officers.

So locals took the law into their own hands. After an unfounded rumor emerged that afternoon saying that two children had been abducted in a taxi, people surrounded the Focus and pulled the agents to the ground. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the agents shouted into his cell phone: "Look, we need help! We're in Tláhuac, and the people are beating us up. Please send backup!"

Television crews showed up. A mass lynching ensured. More than 2,000 people were allegedly on scene, some of them cheering. One agent escaped, the other two were murdered -- burned alive, on camera. And it took police nearly four hours to get backup officers on scene.

U.S. and Mexican media began reporting similar acts of vigilante justice in Mexico, describing a "tsunami theory" of linchamientos related to President Calderon’s drug war; people became emboldened according to these reports and increasingly perpetuated acts of "rough justice" outside Mexico’s major cities and on the front lines of Mexico’s federal war on drugs.

However, a report released last month, written by Dr. George W. Grayson for the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, indicates it may not be correct to connect vigilante actions with the drug war. "Evidence fails to support the tsunami theory of linchamientos," the report concludes. "The conflict between the government and drug lords has not increased the number of lynchings."

He gets into the staggering numbers of drug-related murders in Mexico (which skyrocketed from 1,080 drug-related murders in 2001 to 11,583 last year, a 972.5 percent increase) while noting that the reported number of vigilante incidents is surprisingly low: There were 23 incidents in 2010, 17 in 2009, 11 in 2008. Vigilante incidents were much more prevalent, he writes, in the mid ‘90s (47 in 1996 and 40 in 1995) when Mexico was in a deep recession.   

However:

[I]n addition to revenge, “community justice” has a cathartic effect on mob members who may suffer poverty, joblessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and broken homes; and the anonymity of the attackers enables most to act with impunity against wrongdoers; the police and authorities may turn a blind eye to the attackers or even cooperate with them.

None of those conclusions are exactly comforting. But while Dr. Grayson doesn’t dismiss the potential danger of vigilante groups in Mexico, he notes that, despite media portrayals to the contrary, "it is ironic that vigilante acts do not appear to be increasing amid the atmosphere of violence afflicting Mexico."

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