Mexico is a dangerous place, and showing your face at a time like this could get you killed. Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg
Mexico is a dangerous place, and showing your face at a time like this could get you killed. Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg

Sunday's vigilante takeover of Nueva Italia, a town in the drug-war-ravaged state of Michoacan in west-central Mexico, says many things about the status of Latin America's second-most-populous country -- few of them good. The response suggests Mexico's government doesn't understand the risks, both social and economic, of letting the country descend into ungovernable lawlessness.

The day after the takeover by the so-called Self-Defense Forces of Michoacan, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong and other top officials made a show of signing a security accord with Michoacan’s besieged governor, who had just asked the federal government to reestablish order in his troubled state. Soon after, the Reforma newspaper reported, the government sent at least 11 helicopters and 70 federal agents to Michoacan to help disarm the paramilitaries.

Reforma columnist Sergio Sarmiento brought a healthy dose of skepticism to the news: “Signing an accord won’t solve the problem of insecurity,” he said, adding: “Where the state is absent, the law of the strongest prevails.”

Michoacan’s paramilitary forces emerged early last year in response to the Knights Templar, a drug cartel that has made life hell for Michoacan citizens for years. Among other things, it is known for torturing, hanging and shooting its victims and attaching threatening notes to their corpses. The state’s wanton lawlessness led Mexican bishop Miguel Patino Velasquez, a prominent anti-crime crusader, to deem Michoacan a “failed state.”

During the past year, the vigilantes have reportedly managed to beat back the Templars and have gained a foothold in at least 70 communities and 25 municipalities across Michoacan.

In a near-comical display of naivete, Osorio on Monday called on the vigilantes to “return to their places of origin and reassume their daily routines.” He added: “We invite them to help the authorities by providing information that can lead to the capture of delinquents.” Osorio then suggested citizens use a toll-free telephone number to call in anonymous tips.

The response of the paramilitary leadership sheds light on the type of armed thugs the government is dealing with. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, a medical doctor and an important figure in Michoacan's paramilitary forces, initially seemed willing to abandon the fight. He then reversed course, disavowing any plan to voluntarily disarm in a video that went viral: “When they produce the seven principal heads of organized crime and the rule of law is reestablished in all of Michoacan,” then they would consider disarming, Mireles said.

Juan Pablo Becerra-Acosta, a columnist for the Milenio newspaper, summed up his expectations for Michoacan in a Tuesday column: “Michoacan burned, it burns and will burn even more.”

The same probably could be said of Mexico at large, with violence and lawlessness a blight on the nation's economic prospects, something that may hold back foreign capital investment even after Mexico's adoption of a round of financial and political reforms last year. Mexico's direct foreign investment changed little during the past decade, and an influx of fresh capital is essential.

Mireles’s paramilitary forces may be mortal enemies of the same drug cartel blamed last year for assassinating a senior executive of steelmaker ArcelorMittal SA, a major foreign investor in Mexico. But the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend doesn’t apply here.

Political analyst Ricardo Raphael, writing in an op-ed in the newspaper El Universal, said that Mexico as a brand has lost its luster. Today, Mexico is “synonymous with insecurity, violence and corruption. In that order.”

Having death-squad-like organizations enforcing extralegal justice is something Mexico doesn’t need, and it may well make matters worse. Already, some paramilitary forces have been linked to drug cartels.

Plus, vigilante groups can quickly devolve into criminal enterprises, which is what has happened in Colombia. An editorial from Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper last week offered a fitting admonition: “The boom of private justice groups is another bad piece of news for Mexico,” the paper noted. “Only the state monopoly of force and a strong justice system can contribute to solve the war on multiple fronts that is fought in that great nation.”

Or, as El Universal put it in its own editorial on Tuesday: “The law of the jungle is not justified in a democratic state.” It asked: Who is behind the paramilitary groups? "No one knows. And that is the problem.”

A government that meddles too much can inhibit economic growth. But a forceful government response is precisely what is needed when local authorities are incapable of establishing basic public safety.

In an ideal world, Mexico wouldn’t be fighting a low-grade civil war rooted in the insatiable appetite for illicit drugs of its neighbor to the north. But because Mexico's leaders are either unwilling or unable to combat the illegally armed groups and drug cartels that breed so much chaos, such is Mexico’s lot right now. As long as crime and violence go unchecked, any economic momentum from last year's reforms will be at risk of stalling.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. E-mail him at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.)