Bringing the State Back: How to Deal with Powerful Non-State Actors

Posted: August 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm, Last Updated: August 13, 2013 at 3:07 pm

By Nazia Hussain

An International Crisis Group report[1] on the rising salience of vigilante militias in Mexico that are fast becoming a part of the national security landscape, posited that the authority of the state of Mexico is at stake as non-state actors disburse quick justice through parts of the country. The report recommended that the government of Mexico regulate these armed militias, in order to reach the end goal of establishing the writ of the state.

The policy recommendation of the report that suggests that it ‘requires demonstrating that the state has sufficient capacity to restore law and order on its own’ presents the causality and end game of the equation- of restoring the authority of the state, while demonstrating the capacity of the state to curb non-state actors. In principle, it is a recommendation that is rational- the state ought to establish its authority to root out non-state actors that have begun to challenge it through parts of the country.

However, Mexico is not alone in facing this dilemma of establishing state authority. Many countries in other parts of the world are dealing with the same issue. How do governments regain political and physical space that is being ceded to actors that fall outside of the purview of the legal sphere? If a state is lacking in the capacity or political will, to control territory in the first place, then it cannot carry out its functions of providing basic amenities and securing of life and property, how will it be able to demonstrate its sufficiency in the first place?

Furthermore, are such non-state actors, as vigilante militias a more pressing problem than that of corrupt state functionaries that have been co-opted or coerced by crime groups already? How does a state establish its writ without addressing the root cause of public unrest? How can various actors be clearly categorized as ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors in such situations as the one described above, when various actors act in different capacities simultaneously or at different occasions, as both ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors try to survive or benefit from difficult conditions of living?

These are by no means, easy questions to answer, but are necessary to raise, in order for policymakers and analysts to problematize the changing nature of governance in situations such as in Mexico in question and among many other countries throughout the world.

One example where the state has reclaimed some authority is Colombia. What lessons can be learned from Colombia for Mexico? Or have the improvements in Colombia occurred at the cost of the displacement of insecurity and crime to Central America?

From the perspective of embattled local communities, it does not seem as a stretch of imagination that populations start taking control of their own affairs, when the government fails to provide for them. One only has to look around. Take for instance, the town of Zabadani[2] in Syria, where people have taken matters in their own hands by establishing a 15-person city council with elected middlemen who disburse food and humanitarian aid for residents and refugees, as well as manage municipal institutions such as an underground hospital, courts, and even rubble disposal. Other towns[3] in Syria are witnessing the birth of such an informal order across the breadth of the country.

Similarly, it is not incomprehensible that people in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán[4], which lie at the heart of the vigilante militia action, are extremely poor, lack organized institutional response to crime, and have been at the receiving end of a burgeoning drug trade and accompanying unchecked violence claiming lives of innocents. It was only a matter of time, as chronicled extensively in news reports, that people of these provinces took matters in their own hands.[5]

To address such situations, the conclusion that the state writ ought to be established could be considered equivalent to a wish-list and a noble goal, but one, that is not going to be attained, unless the root causes of why non-state actors gain political and physical space are addressed. By acknowledging the reasons behind the creation of a phenomenon, the causality of why any pattern emerges, can be better surmised.

Furthermore, the neat categories of state versus non-state actors ought to be problematized. Non-state actors do not operate in a vacuum, or cannot do so for long, unless there is legitimacy for their actions and/or support at some level from existing set of actors. Understanding those linkages among various players would be useful for policy makers to understand the contours of governance as local populations experience it on a daily basis.

Without such an understanding, it might be possible that the dream of establishing the supremacy of state over non-state actors is unrealistic.


[1] International Crisis Group, Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico. Mexico City/Bogota/Brussels: International Crisis Group, May 2013

[2] Nazia Hussain, “Order” in Chaos? Some Lessons from Zabadani. Washington DC: Cities and Globalization Working Group, May 2013.

[3] “Order Amid Chaos: Syrian City Embodies the Absurdity of the Civil War,” Der Spiegel, April 23, 2013.

[4] International Crisis Group, Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico.

[5] See for instance,

“Mexico’s Drug War 2013: Vigilante Militia Act As Police, Say They Will Provide Security; Government Tries To Crack Down,” Latin Times, May 20, 2013.

“The Warrior State,”Vice Magazine, April 29, 2013.

“The Rise of Mexico’s Vigilante Militias: Will They Help or Hurt the Drug War?”, Time Magazine, April 11, 2013.

Write to traccc at