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Iraq's Abject Lessons for Mexico's Self-Defense Forces

Paramilitary groups are growing like weeds in the blood-soaked soil of Mexico's cartel hotspots. Across the country, self-defense groups have banded together to take on the country's cartels, and now the government faces a problem all too familiar to veterans of the American military adventure in Iraq. How to go about bringing these groups under the umbrella of the central government? 

Ordinary citizens have banded together in at least 13 states to form so-called autodefensas, or self-defense groups. This month, the Mexican government moved to disarm many of those groups, and on Monday thirty autodefensas signed a deal integrating these paramilitary groups into the government's Rural Defense Corps, a part-time force that has traditionally consisted of small platoons for local patrols and which answers to the Mexican military. And if you want a sense of just how difficult it is to work vigilantes into a military hierarchy, look no further than the Iraqi province of Anbar, where the half-hearted integration of Iraqi militias failed to keep the peace and has now allowed al Qaeda to return with a vengeance. In a grim harbinger of Iraq's possible future, the militant group recently conquered parts of the key city of Fallujah.

In 2006 and 2007, fed up with years of violence, local Sunni tribes began organizing against al Qaeda forces in the province. That effort birthed a ragtag collection of paramilitary groups, many of which became part of the U.S.-backed "Sons of Iraq," an organized local force that Washington armed and paid to help confront al Qaeda. The teamwork between the U.S. and its former enemies from the Sunni tribes helped rout al Qaeda out of Anbar.

In October 2008, U.S. forces and the Iraqi government began a program to integrate members of these militias into the Iraqi military or give them other government jobs, bringing them under Baghdad's control. That proved to be a years-long process. A 2011 report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found that only half of the Sons of Iraq who were told they'd be given job were actually employed by the Iraqi central government. Some didn't get the promised positions, many refused to take them, and others refused to disarm.

In recent months, al Qaeda has returned to Anbar in force. So what lessons do the failed integration of Anbar's militias hold for Mexican authorities? Here are five takeaways from experts who have watched Anbar's disintegration:

The government can't begin an integration program and expect it to run itself.

"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never accepted the Sons of Iraq program," Joel Wing, who writes the Musings on Iraq blog and used to work with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, a U.S.-based NGO, told FP by email. "Through a lot of arm twisting, the Americans got Baghdad to take up their pay and agree to integrate them into the government through either military or civilian jobs, but it was always lackluster, and after the U.S. left the Iraqi government neglected them."

Provide real government oversight and training.

"You have to integrate these guys into a formal set or system," Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and who helped oversee the training of the Iraqi security forces from 2007 to 2008. Dubik said that would involve incorporating them not only into programs like the Rural Defense Corps, but also making sure that they're accepted by the communities in which they operate and ensuring that there's effective judicial and military oversight.

"They're going to have their own leaders, but they have to report to some governmental structure," Dubik said. "You want to pick either police or military leaders who have a good track record of taking care of their soldiers and the people under their jurisdiction. In Iraq, where we had good police leaders and military leaders who took the [Sons of Iraq] under their wing, we had much better performance from them."

Know who you're dealing with.

In Anbar, the Sons of Iraq were "mostly made up of former insurgents," Wing notes. That's a worry in Mexico as well, where many Michoacan residents are concerned that some self-defense forces have connections to rival cartels. "Know who these guys are," Dubik said. "Register them, either biometrically or in some other system, so if they go rogue you know who they are."

Prepare for the cartels to strike back.

"If this program is successful, the Mexican government should prepare for a counterattack," Dubik said. "If this works, the cartels aren't going to like it and they're going to go after these guys. The government and these local forces need to be prepared for that."

Have a plan for the day after.

Presumably, the government of Mexico does not want to permanently open the door to a paramilitary presence. If so, they need to figure out how to reintegrate these militias once the battle with the cartels has subsided. "There needs to be a commitment to regulating these armed groups, and perhaps offering them jobs afterward so that when violence subsides they don't keep their guns and become a new problem for the government," Wing said.

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images; AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images

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