Private Security, or Gangsters?

The New York Times has an interesting piece on Mexican vigilantes, funded and armed by local businesses to protect them from gangs and the cartels. Unfortunately, these vigilantes are keen to use their new power to turn on those they are supposed to protect,

The criminal gang that terrorized this part of Mexico is known as the Knights Templar, and like the self-defense groups, it, too, began with the stated goal of ending the criminal stranglehold on the region.

But it became a large criminal organization itself, killing with impunity, raping women and girls and systemically collecting “dues” from taco vendors, shopkeepers and larger businesses.

9 thoughts on “Private Security, or Gangsters?

    1. JCatalan

      It might be that, in those cases, the expected return to, let’s call it, deviating from providing security is low. I figure that there’s no a priori case for or against private justice, but that it depends on the environment — if a city like Monaco were to suddenly lose its public justice, I doubt chaos would ensue.

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  1. Dan(DD5)

    This example actually works against you, or what I think you are implying (you are not very explicit)

    1. Criminal gang (Knights Templar) that “terrorized this part of…..,..began with the state goal of ending criminal…..”

    That gang is not perceived as legitimate. It is considered by all as a criminal gang, and the proper verb attached to its behavior with respect to the population: “terrorized”. It is doubtful that this “terrorized” could amount to anything even remotely close in the scope of what the Mexican government (or any government for that matter) achieves in its controlled territories, e.g. tax rates, regulations, police harassment, involuntary loss of privacy, etc.. but its activity is still regarded as criminal, and terrorizing. I feel like this is an important stage/phase in the market process of keeping such a group in check.

    2. Other groups were hired and have successfully provided protection for the locals from the Knights Templar, i.e., things are kept in check, thus far as I interpret it.

    3. Locals fear (emphasize on fear) according to the article that these new groups will also turn criminal. This just means that there is even a stronger check on these new groups. Customers are cautious. At no point does anyone regard a “defense agency” breaking contract and becoming violent as legitimate.

    4. I haven’t really researched this enough (perhaps you may want to) but my impression is that no “civil war” has broken out in those territories between the different groups. There may have been a few violent confrontations (I don’t really know) but no where near the scope of an all out war. Seems that, all groups, heavily relying on customers, and even group turning violent on its own customers but has not reached the status of a State (that can legitimately tax and draft) recognize the costs of war are not worth it, and avoid violent confrontation more than not.

    Seems that despite the not so good conditions/environment (Mexican government still claims its monopoly on those territories) that locals (businessman) have and still do thrive absent government protection by hiring private “defense agencies” (despite the fact that those businesses probably still have to pay taxes to the Mexican government) . In other words, those defense agencies, at large still do their job. If this was not so, no business could survive in that environment.

    Of course if you’re going to be biased and regard all government activity as legitimate but any private group engaged in theft or other things as criminal, then obviously you’re going to reach the (false) conclusion that I believe the reporter (maybe you are also) is making.

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    1. JCatalan

      To clarify (I realize the article might be gated for non-subscribers), this group was perceived as legitimate when it was first put together. Businesses, to protect themselves from cartel violence, funded vigilante groups, because there is essentially no publicly provided security in these areas. Since then, these groups have turned on the businesses that funded them, acting as a (very violent) mafia. There is nothing in the story about new vigilante groups protecting these areas from The Knights Templar, just about new vigilante groups that have arise in other areas of Mexico. In fact, the proposed solution is for public security to collude with these vigilante groups, in the hope that doing so will allow some control over what these groups do and who’s part of them.

      Of course, one would assume whatever legitimacy they had in the eyes of their “customers” is now gone. But, in the context of the question, “is private security always, a priori, preferable to public security,” I’m not sure why legitimacy matters. The facts are that the Knights Templar were funded to protect local businesses from the cartels. By accomplishing this, the Knights Templar essentially gave themselves a monopoly on the use of force. They now use that monopoly to turn against those they were once protecting, not only murdering and raping individuals, but extracting taxes (“dues”) from them, as well. So, no, they don’t actually need to serve their customer’s demands, once they achieve that monopoly on violence, to survive.

      As for caution, I’m divided on your point. I think I get what you have in mind. You’re thinking new vigilantes will have to provide some type of guarantee to future customers, to draw their funding. This will increase the quality of the protective services. But, under certain constraints, those kind of institutions may not be possible. I certainly don’t see that as a realistic interpretation of what’s happening in Mexico.

      Think about this: what would happen if the current Mexican state ceased to exist? My guess is that, having no public competition, the cartels and vigilante groups would effectively carve Mexico up, forming territories where they exercise a monopoly on force. You might have a significant number of groups competing with each other for territory, but this is not different to how different states compete for territory.

      To get the kind of public security you have in mind, the markets need a certain degree of competition. Customers need to be able to switch between providers easily, as a threat to protect themselves from predatory services. I don’t think the transition to this degree of competition is very fast — if history is any guide, the process is very slow. I’m certainly partial to the idea that private security can work under certain institutional constraints, but whether these constraints are in place is an empirical question.

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      1. Dan(DD5)

        Well, one aspect that I think you are not considering is that all of these Vigilantes mafia style “defense agencies” are operating illegally, that is, they are outlaws according to the Mexican government. Yes, there are proposals now for government security to collude with these groups (and to legalize them) but only because they are not strong enough to defeat them. My point is that this is a black market and not a free market. You have to be careful whenever you infer conclusions for free markets on the basis of black markets. The two are not the same. They operate differently. They attract totally different types of entrepreneurs. Competition is severely limited to certain type of personalities, property rights are enforced differently, all because all parties involved are basically operating outside the protection of the law. As an analogy, take the illegal prostitution market as an example or the illegal drug markets and cartels themselves. And despite all of this, I still don’t see how the problem is worse than if the Mexican government was stronger and did control those territories. The appeal to rape I feel is an appeal to emotions. I don’t know the incidence level of such occurrences or whatever, but government officials also rape and nobody uses that to discredit the institution of government. US soldiers raped french women in WWII during its liberation (Some liberation for those women). Germans did not apparently, so what conclusions am I to draw from that?

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  2. Marcos P

    Mexico does have very strict gun laws. Perhaps if citizens had better access to firearms, there would be more push back to the cartel’s/vigilante’s monopoly on violence (or capacity for)? At least in my experience, many of the villages and communities in rural Mexico are very tight knit in their relations and if they had the means to defend themselves I think they would do a fairly decent job. Granted, the rise of some of these vigilante groups has come with unfortunate incidents, but there has also been positive results from them as well. I think its a bit of a mixed bag especially since there is a limited access to the tools of defense (firearms).

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