The young man at the roadside checkpoint wept softly behind the red bandanna that masked his face. At his side was a relic revolver, and his feet were shod in the muddy, broken boots of a farmer.
Haltingly, he told how his cousin’s body was found in a mass grave with about 40 other victims of a drug gang. Apparently, the cousin had caught a ride with an off-duty soldier and when gunmen stopped the vehicle, they killed everyone on the car.
“There isn’t one of us who hasn’t felt the pain … of seeing them take a family member and not being able to ever get them back,” said the young civilian self-defense patrol member, who identified himself as “just another representative of the people of the mountain.”
Now he has joined hundreds of other men in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero who have taken up arms to defend their villages against drug gangs, a vigilante movement born of frustration at extortion, killings and kidnappings that local police are unable, or unwilling, to stop.
Vigilantes patrol a dozen or more towns in rural Mexico, the unauthorized but often-tolerated edge of a growing movement toward armed citizen self-defense squads across the country.
“The situation Mexico is experiencing, the crime, is what has given the communities the legitimacy to say, ‘We will assume the tasks that the government has not been able to fulfill,'” said rights activist Roman Hernandez, whose group, Tlachinollan, has worked with the community forces.
The young man and his masked cohorts stop cars at a checkpoint along the two-lane highway that runs past mango and palm trees to Ayutla, a dusty, sun-struck town of concrete homes with red-tile roofs. Pigs, chickens and skinny dogs root in the dirt while the mountains of the Pacific Coast range loom above.
The men wear fading t-shirts and leather sandals, and most are armed with old hunting rifles or ancient 20-gauge shotguns hanging from their shoulders on twine slings as they stop cars and check the IDs of passing drivers.
The reach of drug gangs based in Acapulco, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) away, had intensified to the point that they were demanding protection payments from almost anybody with any property: truck and bus drivers, cattle ranchers, store owners. In a region where farm workers make 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 store owner raised the price of tortillas,” said a short, stocky defense-patrol commander who wore a brown ski mask and a black leather jacket. Because the patrols are not formally recognized by the courts, the law or the government — and they fear drug cartel reprisals — most members wear masks and refuse to give their full names.
An example of the danger came in late July when the city’s official police chief was found shot to death on the edge of town.
It was another attack by criminals that sparked the movement in Ayutla: In early January, gang members kidnapped a commander of an existing community police force in a nearby town.
“Maybe they wanted to intimidate us, but it backfired. They just awakened the people,” said one of the older vigilantes, a straw-hatted man without a gun.
Since then, the upstart self-defense movement has spread to other towns and villages such as Las Mesas and El Pericon. On a recent day, Associated Press journalists saw 200 to 300 masked, armed men patrolling, manning checkpoints and moving around in squad-size contingents. Some had only machetes, but most had old single-shot, bolt-action rifles.
Waving guns, they stop each vehicle, and ask for driver’s licenses or voter IDs, which they check against a handwritten list of “los malos,” or “the bad guys.” They sometimes search vehicles and frisk the drivers.
The commander of the Las Mesas vigilantes explains their motives. “We are not against those who are distributing drugs. That’s a way for them to earn a living. Let anyone who wants to poison themselves with drugs do it. What we are against is them messing with the local people.”
The movement so far seems to be well-accepted by local residents fed up with crime that plagued this stretch of mountain highway.
“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 local resident Lorena Morales Castro, who waited in a line of cars at a checkpoint Friday. “They are our anonymous heroes.”
One vigilante passed sheepishly down the line of waiting cars with a jar asking for donations. Some people tossed in coins or small bills.
Housewife Audifa Miranda Arismendi showed up at the vigilante checkpoint in El Pericon with a vat of chilate, a local beverage made of rice, cocoa beans and cinnamon, for the masked men. “It’s good to help out here, because this is for the good of all,” she said.
Some officials, too, have cautiously approved of the do-it-yourself police. Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre offered to supply them with uniforms so they wouldn’t be confused with masked gang members, but he also said he is trying to eliminate the need for vigilantes by beefing up official forces.
Community and indigenous rights activists often see citizen patrols as a good alternative or addition to standard rural police forces that are considered corrupt or repressive.
But clearly the vigilante squads here present problems even in their first few weeks. The vigilantes in Guerrero are holding, by their own account, 44 people accused of crimes ranging from homicide to theft. Nobody outside the village of El Zapote, where they are being held in a makeshift jail, knows what conditions they are being held in, or what charges, if any, there are against them.
When the head of the Guerrero state Human Rights Commission, Juan Alarcon Hernandez, showed up to check on the prisoners’ condition, he was met by about 100 angry villagers who said they didn’t want anyone to visit the prisoners. “No, no, no. We want justice!” the crowd shouted.
“We wanted to see what condition these people are in, as a human rights issue and as a humanitarian issue,” said Alarcon Hernandez. Eventually, he and his aides turned around and left, unsure how to proceed, because the self-defense squads exist in legal limbo.
Still, the idea of citizen patrols is spreading in Mexico.
In 2011, townsfolk in the pine-covered-hill town of Cheran in neighboring Michoacan state began armed patrols in the face of what they said were the killings of farmers by illegal loggers in league with drug traffickers. In the northern state of Chihuahua, a community of farmers and ranchers known as Colonia Lebaron — most of whom hold dual U.S. citizenship — set up self-defense squads following the 2009 killings of two of its members.
And in the drug-plagued northern state of Sinaloa, the mayor of Concordia, Jose Elijio Medina, responded to a massacre, which forced everyone in a remote hamlet to flee, by calling for the Mexican army to revive the Rural Self Defense Corps, units of armed farmers it once helped train and supervise. While the army did not respond to requests to say how many of the units remain, local media have reported the army has been trying to wind down the few remaining units.
Since 1995, about 80 villages in Guerrero state have organized legal “community police” forces in which poorly-armed villagers detain and prosecute people.
With their own jails, “courts” — actually village assemblies that can hand down verdicts — and punishments that can include forced labor for the town or re-education talks, the community police are recognized by state law, though rights activist Hernandez said there is still friction when community rules intersect with the formal legal system.
He pointed to one incident in 2012 where a judge and a detective in the Guerrero town of San Luis Acatlan arrested a community police leader for exceeding his authority. Villagers responded by arresting the judge, the detective and an assistant.
Members of the vigilante squads in Guerrero say what they want from the government is some kind of salary, not modern weapons. What counts, they say, are their ties to the community and resistance to corruption.
“When the people are united, it doesn’t matter if it’s a .22, a 16-gauge shotgun or 20-gauge. It’s that when we are united, not even bullets from an AK-47 can defeat us,” said the self-defense commander in Las Mesas. “They can’t kill us all.”