Bruno Placido, center, at the community police force base in Ayutla.Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America
Aside from abuses of human rights, analysts fear that citizen militias could mutate into paramilitaries, or be co-opted by drug gangs themselves. Indeed, the quick proliferation of the units and copy cats in other areas show how hard it is to control popular anger once it finds an outlet.
The International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict on a world level, makes a strong case that irregular forces could get out of hand if unchecked. "The rise of civilian militia to combat lawlessness will make it even harder to defeat the cartels unless the government regulates vigilantes," a recent report said.
In his nine months in power, President Enrique Pena Nieto's response has been inconsistent. He issued a warning to vigilantes in his first state of the union address earlier this month. Yet there is little coordination between federal authorities and those on the state or local level. In Michoacan, for instance, the military has intervened to try to disarm militias, while Guerrero's governor, Angel Aguirre, has tried to co-opt them.
The army, too, responds differently on the ground. Soldiers maintained a respectful distance on the edge of this town. But an hour away in Marquelia, where extortionists and kidnappers still hold sway, troops swooped on a prominent militiaman who goes by the name of Commander Garza.
They claimed his red Jetta was stolen and drove him to headquarters in Acapulco. Garza protested that the vehicle was seized from a "narco'' with the approval of state officials.
Garza's arrest followed that of Placido's driver who was stopped at an army checkpoint far from the vigilante base after a day at the beach. Troops found endangered turtle eggs in the car -- the driver protested they were a gift -- and sent him off to jail, where he was interrogated for hours about the movements of his boss.
The incidents shook Placido and he called an emergency meeting of regional henchmen. Sitting on the bleachers of Ayutla’s basketball court, they discussed erecting roadblocks to prevent access by soldiers.
"We don't want confrontation with the government," Placido confided afterwards, as the men returned to their stations. "But we must be ready if necessary."