Morris on Hernández Navarro, 'Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars (Latin America in Translation/en Traducción/em Tradução)'

Luis Hernández Navarro
Nathaniel Morris

Luis Hernández Navarro. Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars (Latin America in Translation/en Traducción/em Tradução). Translated by Ryan Ramor. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. x + 263 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-5453-9.

Reviewed by Nathaniel Morris (University College London) Published on H-LatAm (May, 2022) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

In the autumn of 2013, Mexican militia groups made headlines across the world when they rose up against the country’s drug cartels, declaring that they would confront anyone—generals and politicians included—who threatened their communities. Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars, a translation of Luis Hernández Navarro’s 2014 book Hermanos en armas, constitutes, to date, the most complete English-language account of the early emergence and subsequent expansion of Mexico’s “self-defense” forces and of the events and developments that, by 2013, had spurred their dramatic “irruption … in more than one-third of the country” (p. ix).

Luis Hernández Navarro began his career in the 1970s, as “an organizer with independent unions” (p. 245). He went on to write for the left-leaning national daily La Jornada, for which he provided close, firsthand coverage of the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. This in turn led to his participation in the Dialogues of San Andres—a series of negotiations designed to bring an end to that conflict—and a subsequent role as technical secretary of the Commission for Monitoring and Verification of Peace Agreements in Chiapas. In the years since, he has continued work as a journalist as well as taught courses on Indigenous and human rights to members of the Indigenous communal militias of Guerrero and reported from the frontlines of the ongoing conflicts between self-defense forces, the cartels, and the army in Michoacán.

Hernández Navarro’s dual status as activist and journalist very clearly informs Self-Defense in Mexico. This is not a scholarly tome: it offers the reader no bold new theoretical contributions, nor references to the (growing) academic literature surrounding militias, violent intermediaries, and the drug trade in Mexico. It doesn’t even feature footnotes or endnotes (although it does offer an extensive index and a somewhat thinner bibliography). Instead, Hernández Navarro’s book is an unashamedly journalistic work, much of which consists of “recuperate[d] and rewrite[ten]” versions of essays and articles previously published in La Jornada (for which Hernández Navarro still writes), or in El Cotidiano magazine (a semi-academic Mexican current affairs magazine) (p. x). The book draws on a decade’s worth of firsthand research, advocacy, teaching, and reporting across Mexico to provide a much-needed qualitative account of the rise of largely Indigenous communal police forces and their more militarized mestizo counterparts—the so-called autodefensas—in some of the most marginalized corners of rural Mexico. This is a phenomenon that, he argues, has left the country “in utterly uncharted territory” (p. ix), and may even constitute, at least in certain places and at certain times, a full-blown social and political revolution.

From the outset, the book's sympathies are clear, for although Hernández Navarro acknowledges the controversies aroused by Indigenous self-defense groups, he argues they nonetheless represent a noble cause: the “struggle against the dispossession of their natural resources and the growing presence of drug lords” in their home territories (p. 13). He also traces the heritage of these groups, many of which mix the armed defense of communities with more explicit cultural and political demands, back to the 1994 Zapatista uprising—subject of the first chapter—which he argues opened up a new space for movements seeking Indigenous autonomy. For example, members of communal police forces Hernández Navarro worked with in Guerrero “concluded that autonomy, the recovery of normative systems, and the San Andres accords were exactly what they were doing in practice in terms of their system of security and justice” (p. 12).

Chapters 2 and 3 present more general, synthetic accounts of the increasing militarization of politics and society in Mexico, which Hernández Navarro argues really took shape from 2006 when President Calderón declared a “war” on Mexico’s cartels. He also looks at civil society groups’ attempts to peacefully resist this militarization, focusing above all on the “Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity” led by Javier Sicilia, a poet-turned-activist whose son was one of the tens of thousands of victims of Calderón’s war. Sicilia’s group initially garnered significant popular support but later clashed with other movements, including that led by the then-opposition leader and today president of Mexico Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as well as Indigenous and leftist groups with more radical demands. Ultimately, Hernández Navarro argues, Sicilia's activities “gave rise to the paradox of a peaceful movement that would open up a space in society for the emergence of a movement of armed civilians against drug cartels and public insecurity” (p. 13).

This discussion leads neatly on to chapters 4, 5, and 6, which focus on the state of Guerrero, home of Mexico’s longest-running community police forces. The state has long been a venue for violent conflict, not least during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s, when the government and allied paramilitary forces waged a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against local people—most of them poor and many of them members of Indigenous communities—accused of supporting leftist guerrillas. Out of the trauma and oppression of this period, Hernández Navarro argues, arose a new generation of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican rights groups and peasant cooperatives, which, inspired by the Zapatista uprising, adopted more militant tactics after 1994 and eventually organized communal militias to defend themselves from bandits, drug traffickers, and corrupt and predatory state forces.

However, in what is one of the most important contributions made by this book, Hernández Navarro shows that more recently the alliance between the region’s numerous community police forces has broken apart, due to personal rivalries, conflicts over tactics and strategy, and the contradictions between “the autonomy of the regional security system and the management of state resources for productive and welfare projects” (p. 102). This often violent fragmentation has been further exacerbated by the concerted political and military onslaught against them—one of the “New Dirty Wars” of the book’s title—waged by the federal government on behalf of multinational mining companies, whose local operations the community police have long opposed.

The book then turns to the neighboring state of Michoacán, which Hernández Navarro argues has become “in the new Mexican century … a reissue of the old American Wild West, only instead of the law of the revolver, it is now the law of the AK-47” (p. 134). Hernández Navarro first traces the rise of local drug cartels and the region’s parallel descent into chaos and violence since the mid-1990s, which sets the scene for subsequent analysis of the origins of the state’s militant Indigenous self-defense movements, the proclamation of the Ostula Manifesto, and the spread of this “Indigenous uprising” from Ostula to dozens of other communities, including Nurio, Santa Fe, Urapicho, Arantepacua, and, most famously of all, Cherán. These movements provided much of the political and organizational inspiration, he argues, for the 2013 uprising of mestizo autodefensa militias in Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente region, the successes and failures of which constitute the focus of two further, fascinating chapters that also analyze in detail the Mexican state’s attempts to roll back the autodefensas, which in Weberian terms inherently challenged the former’s idealized—although in practice, long contested and never firm—monopoly on legitimate violence.

A short, panoramic chapter follows, examining the contemporary emergence of self-defense forces in the rest of Mexico, from the Huasteca to Chiapas, Jalisco to Yucatán. Further, the chapter elucidates the conflicted relations between these groups and both Mexico’s more “classic” leftist guerrilla groups (such as the EPR [Popular Revolutionary Army] of Guerrero), and the “Left” more generally. Self-Defense in Mexico then concludes with an account of the failed attempt to form a purportedly national movement of autodefensas: a movement “driven by a noble and generous cause,” which fell apart in the face of accusations that its members were all “guerrillas embroiled in a civil cause, drug traffickers disguised as vigilantes creating a new cartel, violent Indians eager to take justice into their own hands, paramilitaries at the service of counterinsurgency plans” (p. 240).

Rather than a detached recounting of someone else's history, Self-Defense in Mexico is a passionate account, often based on Hernández Navarro's own firsthand observations and the testimony of other eyewitnesses. This allows him to distinguish—unlike many other journalists, politicians, and so-called security experts—between the community-based and often deeply historically grounded police forces established in primarily Indigenous regions of Mexico, the more recently formed and largely mestizo autodefensa militias, and a range of other paramilitaries, guardias blancas, and death squads. And it means that this book is more than a secondary analysis, but also a primary account, of the emergence, activities, internal conflicts and contradictions, and successes and failures of these groups.

For all its firsthand detail and well-informed analysis, however, Self-Defense in Mexico is not without its issues. There are various moments where the temporality of the narration becomes confusing, due to the fact that the book is based on older articles, rewritten and published in Mexico in 2014, and then translated and published in English in 2020. A reference to “this current administration” on p. 34, for example, could actually refer to three distinct governments. For similar reasons, statistics on the Mexican drug trade often appear seriously out of date, and a quote on the same subject from Sinaloan journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas lacks any mention of his own public assassination in 2017 at the hands of a cartel hitman, context which would have significantly strengthened the point being made.

But despite such minor problems, Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars is a valuable resource for undergraduates, teachers, and researchers interested in contemporary Mexican history and politics, and, more broadly, in issues of organized crime, violent society-state relations, and the rise of nonstate armed groups across the global South. It is also a just testament to the struggle of so many poor, marginalized Mexicans to defend themselves, their families, and their communities from the violent oppression not just of so-called narcos, but of a corrupted and corrupting state.

Citation: Nathaniel Morris. Review of Hernández Navarro, Luis, Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars (Latin America in Translation/en Traducción/em Tradução). H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL:

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