Indigenous Militias in Mexico

Indigenous P’urépecha militiamen in Cherán, Michoacán (Foto: Iván Stephens/Cuartoscuro)

In the autumn of 2013, Mexican vigilantes – many of them based in the country’s Indian communities – made the international news headlines when they rose up against the country’s drug cartels, declaring that they would confront anyone, including generals and politicians, who threatened their families, lands and livelihoods.

The emergence of these paramilitary organisations posed a serious challenge to the authority of the state, famously defined by Weber as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’. The indigenous character of many of these groups meanwhile posed an even greater headache; for as well as employing coercive force without the government’s blessing, they were able to legally defend their existence with reference to recently-acquired constitutional rights to organise themselves and their communities in line with Indian ‘traditions and customs’.

However, although these militias are often portrayed as radically new phenomena that pose unprecedented challenges to the rule of law, similar groups have in fact played a key role in Mexico’s history since the mid- nineteenth century. The indigenous Cora (Náayari) people of the Gran Nayar region, for example, have a long history of fighting as part of such militias: I’ve written in Small Wars & Insurgencies about how this helped their communities to keep hold of traditional landholdings in the face of political and economic reform (available here). Popular paramilitary forces based in other Indian communities meanwhile helped the nascent Liberal state defeat French invaders in the 1860s, and their direct descendants – the so-called ‘Defensas Sociales’ – again became a powerful force during the Revolution (1910-40), both resisting rebellions and advancing radical agrarian reform.

Indigenous Tepehuano ‘Defensa Social’ Commanders in the mountains of Durango, mid-1920s

But just as Mexico’s Indians are popularly seen as ‘standing on the margins of progress, on the margins of nationality and outside of history’, so too the role of indigenous militias in regional politics, and in the formation of the Mexican nation-state itself, has been largely ignored by academics, journalists and policy-makers alike, who present their modern successors as detached from their historical and cultural moorings, and who thus risk seriously misunderstanding them. My research aims to redress this situation by demonstrating the strong ties of history, memory, space and culture that link Mexico’s modern indigenous militias to their mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth century forebears. In order to do so, it will answer three main questions:

Why, and how, have militias been formed in Mexican communities (particularly indigenous ones)?

How have the Mexican state, and non-state actors and institutions including the Church, revolutionary factions, bandits, and drug trafficking organisations, responded to the emergence of Indian militia groups?

How have the interactions between all of these actors – militias, non-state actors and the state itself – helped to shape the Mexican nation-state, and the diverse ethno-cultural and socio-political identities of its inhabitants?