HUNDREDS of men in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero have taken up arms to defend their villages against drug gangs, frustrated at extortion, killings and kidnappings local police are unable, or unwilling, to stop.
“The situation Mexico is experiencing, the crime, is what has given the communities the legitimacy to say, ‘We will assume the tasks the government has not been able to fulfil,’” said rights activist Roman Hernandez, whose group, Tlachinollan, has worked with the community forces.
At the weekend, a masked group stopped cars and examined IDs at a checkpoint along the road to Ayutla, a town of concrete homes with red tile roofs. They wore fading T-shirts and leather sandals; most were armed with old hunting rifles or shotguns hanging from their shoulders on twine slings.
The reach of drug gangs based in Acapulco, about 45 miles away, had intensified to the point that they were demanding protection payments from almost anybody with any property. In a region where farmworkers make the equivalent of less than $6 per day, the situation grew intolerable for everyone.
“When they extorted money from the rancher, he raised the price of beef, and the shop owner raised the price of tortillas,” said a defence-patrol commander in a brown ski mask.
Last July, the city’s police chief was found shot to death on the edge of town. But it was the kidnapping of a commander of a community police force in a nearby town in January that prompted Ayutla’s vigilantes.
“Maybe they wanted to intimidate us, but it backfired. They just awakened the people,” said one of the older vigilantes.
Since then, the self-defence movement has spread to other towns and villages, including Las Mesas and El Pericon. On a recent day, journalists saw 200 to 300 masked, armed men patrolling in squads.
They stopped each vehicle, and asked for the driver’s ID, which they checked against a handwritten list of “los malos” – “the bad guys”. They sometimes searched vehicles and drivers.
The commander of the Las Mesas vigilantes said: “We are not against those who are distributing drugs. That’s a way for them to earn a living. What we are against is them messing with the local people.”
The movement so far seems to be well-accepted by locals fed up with crime.
“In less than a month, they have done something that the army and state and federal police haven’t been able to do in years,” said Lorena Morales Castro, who waited in a line of cars at a checkpoint last Friday. “They are our anonymous heroes.”
Some officials, too, have cautiously approved of the squads. Angel Aguirre, governor of Guerrero, offered to supply them with uniforms. However, he also said he is trying to eliminate the need for vigilantes by beefing up official forces.
But the vigilantes also present problems. Those in Guerrero are holding, by their own account, 44 people accused of crimes ranging from murder to theft. Nobody outside the village of El Zapote, where they are being held in a makeshift prison, knows what conditions they are being held in, or what charges, if any, there are against them.
Members of the vigilante squads in Guerrero say what they want from the government is some kind of salary, not weapons. What counts, they say, are their ties to the community and resistance to corruption.
“When the people are united … not even bullets from an AK-47 can defeat us,” said the self-defence commander in Las Mesas. “They can’t kill us all.”