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The specter of paramilitary revenge

How long will it be before vigilante-style paramilitary groups form in Mexico to fight back against gangsters and their rampant extortion and mayhem?

The question has been lingering for some time now. And it’s coming to the fore with a group that calls itself “Zeta killers” in Veracruz state. They are the ones who claimed responsibility for dumping the bodies of 35 people, presumed members of the Zetas gangster group, on a city boulevard in Veracruz Sept. 20.

The “Zeta killers” group posted an eerie YouTube video on the internet over the weekend. I’ve embedded it above. You can see the five members, all wearing black hoods, offering their Spanish-language justification for going after Los Zetas. 

“Our only objective is the cartel of Los Zetas,” the man says, reading from a statement. He concludes by saying that his group’s “intention is to let people in Veracruz know that this social scourge is not invincible…”

The paramilitary phenomenon is far from new in Latin America, reaching its height in Colombia, where wealthy ranchers formed armed groups to battle leftist FARC guerrillas seeking to abduct large landowners for ransom or squeeze payments from them. The paramilitaries often held right-wing political beliefs, carrying out executions of union bosses and others sympathetic to the left. Despite their brutality, the paramilitaries enjoyed a significant measure of social support. Many Colombians were fed up with the excesses of the FARC. 

But in Colombia, paramilitary actions descended into broad criminality. The paramilitary units became major cocaine traffickers. 

In a strictly semantic sense, the criminal gangs in Mexico might also be called paramilitary units. But they don’t hold the ideological edge that their Colombian counterparts once did. So far, there hasn’t been any social cleansing. Rather, one crime group goes after another, mainly because it wants to take over the underworld activities of its rival. But all Mexican crime groups engage in reprehensible tactics.

Alejandra Sota, the new spokeswoman on national security for President Felipe Calderon, made this point in a public statement this afternoon, sweeping away the argument that the killing of the 35 presumed Zetas was an act of social cleansing by a “better” vigilante force acting in the interests of society at large.

“While it is true that from information offered by local authorities, it is understood that some of the victims had criminal records, I underscore that for the federal government this circumstance does not in any way lessen the gravity of the deeds, nor does it diminish our determination to bring those responsible to justice,” she said.

“We must not grow confused over what happened recently in Veracruz. It is a matter of delinquents from one band who are trying to take over control of criminal activities of another criminal band.”

Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point a group of wealthy Mexicans did band together to finance a straight-forward vigilante style group. This Univision article (in Spanish) quotes a Mexican lawmaker saying it is already happening, and cites reports of Israelis and Iraq war veterans coming to Mexico. I personally haven’t heard such reports.          


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so cool! i love it!thanks!

Tim J

Point taken. It was not an illuminated choice of words to reflect the complexity of the Colombian situation.


I have just one gripe with your otherwise excellent and essential blog.

Is it really necessary to label union members and organizers murdered by Colombian paramilitaries as "union bosses"? These death squads also murdered peasants to clear land for ranchers, or were they just killing "peasant bosses?"

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This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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