On November 13 a group of drug dealers approached Don Alejo Garza Tamez in his ranch on the outskirts of Ciudad Victoria, in the troubled border state of Tamaulipas. They threatened Don Alejo and demanded that he hand over his land, which given its strategic location would have been used to harbor narcotic trafficking operations. They told him he had 24 hours to vacate the premises on his own free will or they would take the ranch using deadly force.
After the criminal group left, the 77-year-old businessman rounded up all ranch workers and asked them to go home for a couple of days, assuring them that nothing bad would happen. A hunter by trade, Don Alejo spent the rest of the day cleaning his guns and rifles and transforming the ranch into a trench.
When the drug dealers came back the next day expecting Don Alejo to give up at the sight of their heavy artillery, they faced a fierce combatant who gunned down at least four of them before taking a deadly hit. The criminals who survived the exchange escaped in their trucks leaving a dirt trail and the bodies of their friends behind.
What is most relevant of this story is not the fact in itself, but what it inspired and what it symbolizes for a tired and disenfranchised nation. The story of Don Alejo made the headlines of all major national newspapers. Respected journalists like Denise Maerker and Ciro Gomez Leyva were quick to hail him as a folk hero. In just a couple of days, stories about him hit the usual social media websites and today the letters “don a” are enough to bring up his full name as the first hit in Google Mexico’s instant search bar. Norteño music bands have already dedicated at least three songs to him and his story has spurred up a national debate about the right to carry weapons for self-defense.
Don Alejo was undoubtedly a brave and principled man. He most likely knew how his story would end and he faced death with his head held high. He didn’t call his family to warn or worry them and he made the decision of not placing his workers in danger. He faced what has become the largest threat to all of the nation’s livelihood and well-being and gave his aggressors a lesson many in this country would wish they had the courage to administer.
The problem is that Don Alejo is a hero we should not have to have. If Mexico continues to claim that it is not a failed or failing state, we (not just the government but society as a whole) have to prove that we can fix our law enforcement so that people like Don Alejo have an alternative to picking up a hunting rifle and using it to defend their property. We have to clean up our police force and they have to regain the trust of the citizenry. We need to contain and establish boundaries with regards to what (if anything) we are willing to tolerate from criminal organizations.
Don Alejo is a people’s symbol but he should also serve as a warning to government in order for them to get their act together and protect their constituents. He should be a wake-up call to all of us in order to demand more and actively participate in strengthening our institutions in order to rescue our country. An eye for an eye and a gun for each of us cannot be the answer. The organization “La familia Michoacana” was born under the ideal of taking justice in their own hands and they are now one of the most dangerous groups of criminals in the country. When people find that tallion law is more effective than rule of law, structured society is at a fragile state.
*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.