Mexico’s masked vigilantes defy drug gangs — and the law

By Nicholas Casey

AYUTLA, Mexico—Masked men, rifles slung over their shoulders, stand guard on a lonely rural road, checking IDs and questioning travelers. They wear no uniforms, flash no badges, but they are the law here now.

A dozen villages in the area have risen up in armed revolt against local drug traffickers that have terrorized the region and a government that residents say is incapable of protecting them from organized crime.

The villages in the hilly southern Mexican state of Guerrero now forbid the Mexican army and state and federal police from entering. Ragtag militias carrying a motley arsenal of machetes, old hunting rifles and the occasional AR-15 semiautomatic rifle control the towns. Strangers aren’t allowed entry. There is a 10 p.m. curfew. More than 50 prisoners, accused of being in drug gangs, sit in makeshift jails. Their fates hinge on public trials that began Thursday when the accused were arraigned before villagers, who will act as judge and jury.

Crime is way down—for the moment, at least. Residents say kidnapping ceased when the militias took charge, as did the extortions that had become the scourge of businessmen and farmers alike. The leader of one militia group, who uses the code name G-1 but was identified by his compatriots as Gonzalo Torres, puts it this way: “We brought order back to a place where there had been chaos. We were able to do in 15 days what the government was not able to do in years.”

Yet a few shaken townspeople in Ayutla, the area’s primary town, have stories of being arrested and held for more than a week before being deemed innocent and released. And one man was shot dead trying to escape the masked men at a checkpoint.

Village justice has long been part of life in rural Mexico. Now it’s playing a growing role in the country’s drug war. Across Mexico, from towns outside the capital to along the troubled border with the U.S., mobs have lynched suspected drug traffickers and shot those accused of aiding them. Last year a logging town in a neighboring state took up arms when traffickers of La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel, attempted to lay claim to their forests.

The uprising around Ayutla, a two-hour drive from the resort city of Acapulco, differs from the others because it has started to spread locally. In the two weeks, bands in six other towns in Guerrero state have declared vigilante rule, including in Iguala, a city of 140,000. In the nearby Jalisco state, groups say they are considering similar action.


Some government officials are even siding with the militias, for now. Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre has met with the vigilantes and says state law gives villagers the right to self-rule. Ayutla’s mayor, Severo Castro, says he welcomes the new groups. On a recent evening, he pointed toward a checkpoint blocks away and said the town is nearly crime-free for the first time in years.

“There are two police departments now,” he said. “The ones in uniform and another masked one, which is much more brave.”

That sentiment seems to be shared even among local police, who are still technically on duty but who now seem limited to the role of directing traffic around the central square, leaving the rest of the patrolling and police work to the militias.

Police Commander Juan Venancio, a broad-faced middle-aged man with a mustache, said local police are too afraid of organized crime to make arrests.

“We could arrest a gangster for extortion, but if we couldn’t prove it, we’d have to let him go,” he said. “But then what about our families? Do you think we’re not scared they will take revenge on us if they are out? Of course we are scared.”

In some ways, life is getting back to normal here after years of insecurity. Village rodeos attract young cowboys and girls in traditional dresses, and weddings stretch late into the evening. The same townspeople who were once extorted by drug gangs now bring melons and tamales to the militiamen standing guard at checkpoints.

Suspicion of the government and outsiders runs high here. During a visit by The Wall Street Journal last week to the nearby hamlet of Azozuca, rumor spread that the reporter’s car was bringing state human-rights officials. An angry, stick-wielding mob of about 150 blocked the only road into town and didn’t allow the reporter to enter.

“Get out of here! Don’t take another step!” yelled a woman waving a wooden bat.

Remote villages in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most independent regions, had long complained that too few police looked after their towns. In 1995, the state passed a law allowing towns to form “community police” groups that worked much like neighborhood-watch organizations, permitting the groups to detain suspects and hand them over to authorities. But the laws didn’t allow the groups to pass judgment on those accused.

By 2006, Mexico’s drug war had begun to weaken its already-troubled institutions. Areas like Mexico City remained under tight control, but the power of the state in rural areas diminished. Some 65,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006, but only a fraction of the killings have been solved—or even investigated, according to the government and legal experts.

“Mexico has a 2% conviction rate, and Mexicans have taken note of that,” says Sergio Pastrana, a sociology professor at the College of Guerrero who has studied rural regions. “It’s caused unrest and a determination among some to take the reins themselves.”

Villagers in Ayutla say the town was never crime-free—bandits sometimes robbed horsemen riding the road, for example—but the specter of organized crime was something new.

Several years ago, a group known by villagers as Los Pelones—literally, the Bald Ones—entered Ayutla and began a racket which included both drugs and other crime, people here say.

Mr. Castro, the mayor, says his 19-year-old daughter was kidnapped two years ago and he paid a “large sum” for her release. Last July, the body of the town’s police chief Óscar Suástegui was found in a garbage dump outside town. He had been shot 13 times. Authorities said it looked like the work of a criminal group. No arrests were made in either case.

Townspeople say Los Pelones moved into extortions last year, demanding protection money from those who ran stalls in the market adjoining Ayutla’s central plaza. The payments were usually 500 pesos, or $40, a month per stall, according to several vendors, a large sum in the impoverished town.

As harvest season approached last fall, the group fanned out into the countryside, demanding monthly payments of 200 pesos, about $16, for each animal that farmers owned. Several farmers say the gang made a list of those who had agreed to pay and those who had not.

In November, a spate of kidnappings began. Gunmen in the village of Plan de Gatica captured the village commissioner, a kind of locally elected mayor, along with a priest in a nearby village who had refused to pay extortion fees for his church. A second commissioner was kidnapped in the village of Ahuacachahue in December. The three men eventually were released after ransoms were paid, villagers say.

When a village commissioner named Eusebio García was captured on Jan. 5, several dozen villagers from Rancho Nuevo grabbed weapons and formed a search party. The next morning, they found Mr. García in a nearby house with his kidnappers, who were arrested and jailed, say the militiamen.

“This was the turning point, the moment everything exploded here,” says Bruno Placido, one of the leaders of the armed groups. “We had shown the power armed people have over organized-crime groups.”

As word spread of Mr. García’s release, farmers in villages around Ayutla also took up arms. Their plan: to descend into Ayutla, where they believed the rest of the Los Pelones gang was based. That night they raided numerous homes throughout Ayutla, arresting people they believed to be lookouts, drug dealers, kidnappers and hit men, and brought them to makeshift jails. Other villagers set up checkpoints across the town.

The vigilantes were now in charge. They instituted the curfew and declared that state and federal authorities would be turned away at checkpoints. Villagers were allowed to make accusations against others, anonymously, at the homes of militiamen.

The group ordered most schools shut down, saying Los Pelones might try to take children hostage in exchange for prisoners detained by the vigilantes.

“I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before,” says state Education Secretary Silvia Romero, who traveled to Ayutla after the initial uprising to negotiate for classes to resume. Some teachers agreed that suspending school was necessary until all top gang leaders were under lock and key. “The students were an easy target for the criminals,” says teacher Ignacio Vargas.

Many schools have since reopened. The army, after negotiations, set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the region. Beyond that, the militiamen remain in control and no state or federal officials are permitted to enter the villages around Ayutla.

Townspeople interviewed recently said the masked men are ordinary farmers and businessmen, not rival criminals looking to oust Los Pelones. The mayor agrees. Still, Mr. Torres, the lead militiaman in Ayutla, acknowledged the risk of “spies from organized crime coming into our ranks.” He said he encourages his men to turn in anyone seeking to join the vigilantes who might be linked to crime groups.

The militias are moving beyond the drug gangs to other alleged crimes and, in the process, are revealing some of the pitfalls of village justice.

On a recent day, two pickup trucks filled with masked men pulled up carrying bar owner Juan de Dios Acevedo. They alleged that Mr. Acevedo, 42, had been involved in the rape of a local woman. One of them pulled a shirt over his head while another bound his hands with rope. His mother and sister comforted him and cried.

As he was being bundled into one pickup, his mother fetched signed papers from the local prosecutor’s office that said he had already been arrested for the same crime, and cleared by prosecutors. “This is a false accusation, and now I’ve been arrested for the second time,” Mr. Acevedo protested.

The vigilantes were unmoved and took him away for questioning. Later that day, he was released unharmed.

A makeshift detention center run by villagers in El Mezón is home to two dozen men and women accused of being with Los Pelones. There is no budget to run the prison, villagers say. The prisoners eat donated tortillas and rice and sleep on cardboard on the floor. On a recent afternoon, seven men were clustered behind bars in a tiny, dark room that smelled of urine. It was hot and dirty. There were no visible signs of physical abuse.

The masked commander of the facility, who wouldn’t give his name and declined to allow interviews with the prisoners, said the men are being treated well and will be given a chance to defend themselves in a public trial in the village. They won’t be allowed lawyers, he said, and villagers will decide their sentences by a consensus vote.

Possible punishments include hard labor constructing roads and bridges in chain gangs, he said, although it will be up to the villagers, not the militia, to decide. He added that executions, which are not permitted under Mexican law even in murder cases, were not on the table.

“The village will be their judge,” he said. “If the village saves you, you will be free. If not, then you are condemned.”

Nightly raids of suspected drug traffickers have provided the militiamen with a clutch of high-powered weapons, including AR-15 rifles. It isn’t clear how the men will be trained to use the weapons.

On Jan. 6, the night the checkpoints were erected, a man named Cutberto Luna was shot dead by the vigilantes, state authorities say. Mr. Torres, the Ayutla militia commander, says the man refused to stop at the checkpoint and opened fire on the men standing guard, who responded by firing back. He also alleges Mr. Luna was a “known leader of organized crime.”

Members of Mr. Luna’s family couldn’t be located for comment. The state prosecutor’s file on the case says Mr. Luna was a local taxi driver. The file makes no mention of organized-crime ties. No arrests have been made in the killing.

On a recent day, a group of militiamen in the village of Potreros discussed what lay ahead. A rancher in a nearby town was thought to have collected extortion money on behalf of the criminal gangs. Several militia members wanted to organize a raid to take back the money, then use it to buy ammunition. The men also discussed the merits of shooting on the spot criminals they believed to be guilty rather than taking them to village courts.

A vendor in the Ayutla town plaza is glad to have faced neither fate. He spent 14 days in the El Mezón jail but was released on Jan. 21, he said. The vendor said he was accused of helping an organized-crime member. In fact, he said, he was simply paying his 500 peso weekly extortion fee. He wasn’t harmed in detention, he said, but got sick after he was given dirty water from a nearby pond to drink.

“Clearly I wasn’t on the side of the bad guys,” he said. “Still, I went to jail. The kind of psychological damage this does is great. Now I’m afraid they’ll come back for me and cut off my finger or gouge out my eye.”

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