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AYUTLA DE LOS LIBRES, Mexico -- There on the cement town plaza, villagers led the two presumed extortionists over to government police. A band of farmers with old hunting rifles and machetes made sure the pair didn't get away
Three hundred eyes watched as the detainees were led to a truck. A wind was picking up and the official overseeing the handover wanted to leave quickly before the tropical storm. But the men in ripped shirts and worn sandals blocked his path and yelled, one by one. Why could the government not stop drug gangsters? How could he allow organized crime?
"The Mafia demanded 500 pesos ($50) a week from me," said a mechanic in a stained straw hat.
"My daughter was raped and abducted," said a farmer who had sold his wedding ring to pay ransom. "She was 17. You’re not doing your job."
The official looked down at his feet, which, unlike the ones around him, were shod in shiny leather. Mumbling, "Si, there are some bad people," he spotted an opening in the crowd and sprinted to the waiting truck. The driver hit the gas. A crimson-faced man bellowed after them, "You better not free them. We don't allow criminals here.''
Across Mexico, civilians like those in this southern town are taking the law into their own hands, fed up with the terror sown by organized narcotics groups. Peasants are riding shotgun in pick-up trucks. They chase SUVs with tinted windows, and lock the occupants in dank rooms. It's estimated nearly half of Mexico's 31 states have seen some form of citizen militias, from up toward the border with the U.S., and down to the Pacific coast.
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These uprisings are nearly all in areas of rural poverty, long neglected by a government that fails to serve justice. Corrupt and complicit authorities have enabled cartel violence that has slaughtered more than 60,000 people nationwide over the past six years. Few perpetrators have been imprisoned for the executions, rapes and kidnappings by organized crime.
The epicenter of this rogue law enforcement lies in this southern state, aptly named Guerrero, or warrior, which has had a history of resistance against outside authority for 200 years. For the past two decades, it's also had a tradition of community policing and local justice in the indigenous mountains. The Mexican constitution allows some autonomy in these remote settlements, but what has developed over the past few months largely falls outside these populations, challenging not only the drug cartels but the federal government as well.
The uprising began in this regional seat of the so-called Costa Chica, a coastal, hilly area just two hours outside the blingy resort of Acapulco. People here grow corn on small plots, and few have studied past primary school. About four years ago, "narcos'' began coming down from the poppy fields in the mountains to shake down anyone from taxi drivers to hotel clerks for extra cash. They grabbed pretty girls off the street and shot anyone who annoyed them. It got so bad that residents didn't venture out after dark.
On January 5, after yet another kidnap, folks decided they had had enough. Two hundred men put on masks so that the “chicos malos,” or bad guys, wouldn’t recognize them. Then they went door to door to hunt them down. The shrouded ones set up roadblocks to prevent suspected delinquents from circulating. Crime, amazingly, shriveled.
Word got out and other villages followed, under the leadership of Bruno Placido, 43, an indigenous organizer whose oratory outsizes his small frame. The network now claims 3,500 forces from 10 municipalities, calling itself the Union of Organized People of the State of Guerrero.
"There was no other option," said Placido. "It was utter lawlessness. Someone had to do something." He paused to take a call on the walkie talkie, about a kidnap victim who needed rescue.
Placido denies mobilizing elsewhere in the country, but the trend has nonetheless taken hold in other parts, namely in next-door Michoacan, where cattle ranchers and peasants are organizing similar patrols.
He travels on rutted roads up to eight hours a day in a white Nissan Navara to coordinate actions among villages. His regional "commander" is a baby-faced, 28-year-old named Ernesto Gallardo, who, in a former life, took care of cows. The "base" is a house where men sit behind sandbags, ready for calls about trouble. They jump into whatever vehicle they can find, tie up suspects and secure them in the back kitchen until they are "judged" and handed over to authorities if found guilty.
Town matrons sustain the enforcers with chili sauces and tortillas that they haul in paint buckets. The ragtag police have won the support of the state governor, too, who has supplied radios and uniforms -- beige t-shirts and baseball caps -- to help the efforts.
People love the units because crime has practically disappeared, said Ayutla’s mayor, Severo Castro. His own daughter was taken hostage a couple years ago, but now feels safe going out again. "Before we thought no one could stop the delinquency. And then it went away. Right away."
Yet he expressed concern about the detainees, who pace back and forth like zoo animals because the cement floor is too wet to sleep on. Relatives bring them food because jailers don't. The accused wait anxiously for the moment when peasants, unpracticed in law, weigh the claims against them. As a measure of the weak cases -- or, perhaps, the complicity of authorities -- all but six of the 82 people handed over to the government since the start of the year have been released.
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."
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