Self-defense groups in Guerrero, Mexico

For the past month community-deputized men -- most in ski masks, armed with shotguns and machetes -- have been manning checkpoints and patrolling villages in an effort to break the criminal siege in the mountains near Acapulco, Mexico.

Anchored by long-standing volunteer community police forces in the mostly indigenous region known as the "Costa Chica," or Small Coast, the vigilantes have arrested at least 54 people, charging most with drug peddling, extortion and other "organized" crime. A handful of men stand accused of kidnapping and murder. Yet another faces charges of stealing a cow.

Activists and local officials say the posses have responded to surging criminality that has seized the mountain communities in the six years since the launch of a federal campaign against Mexico's powerful drug trafficking gangs.

That federal crackdown has sparked an explosion of violence across the country's northern border and along both of its coasts, claiming more than 60,000 lives, including some 1,600 since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office two months ago. Acapulco ranked last year among Mexico's most violent cities, and impoverished Guerrero state, which includes both the city and the Costa Chica, has been a prime battleground for warring gangs.

State and federal officials have condemned the vigilantes as both dangerous and unconstitutional. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), an autonomous federal agency, has done so as well. Mexico's constitution "categorically establishes that no one can carry out justice for themselves nor use violence to reclaim their rights," the commission said in a statement last weekend.

But the respected Tlachinollan human rights organization, based in the same mountains as the posse-policed communities, say the vigilante groups are a natural and legitimate reaction to the government's inability to guarantee security. The villagers are claiming the right to take justice upon themselves under the traditional "uses and customs" governing many indigenous communities, it argues.

"The justice system is neither efficient nor trustworthy," Tlachinollan says in a statement supporting the vigilantes, published on its website; "This is one of the fundamental reasons why the strategy against organized crime has failed.

"Today the organized people of the Costa Chica realized that the security forces and justice organs don't do their job but on the contrary collaborate with the organized criminal bands," the group said. "For that reason [the people] have decided to provide security and justice according to their own systems."

On Wednesday, federal Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio reached an agreement with community leaders for the patrolling volunteers to remove their masks, and activist leader Bruno Placido told reporters that the prisoners might be released to state custody.

Community leaders had threatened to judge the accused at a January 31 public trial in El Mezon, a small village in the township of Ayutla de los Libres, the epicenter of the vigilante movement. But they backed off at the last minute, merely presenting the 50 men and four women and reading the still-unsubstantiated charges against them. A second public event has been scheduled for February 14, when leaders say they will provide proof of the charges, but it remains unclear how Wednesday's agreement with the Interior Ministry would affect those plans.

Guerrero state has seen its share of Mexico's gangland slaughter, with the former and current factions of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel battling one another, as well as the Zetas, the Familia Michoacana and other groups, for control of drug smuggling routes, retail drug sales, extortion and other rackets. Suspected gangsters ambushed and killed nine state policemen patrolling near the town of Apaxtla, several hundred miles to the northwest of Ayutla, on February 5.

But Guerrero also has a long history of armed insurrection and anti-government sentiment.

Four decades ago, the Mexican Army brutally suppressed a growing peasant rebellion in the mountains to the northwest of Acapulco. State police massacred supporters of a leftist political party who took over city halls along the state's coast following 1988 presidential elections widely seen as fraudulent that in favor of Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last century.

In 1995, state police dispatched by the governor gunned down 17 unarmed farmers protesting near a village west of Acapulco. And in June 1998 soldiers slaughtered 11 people, mostly community leaders from local villages, who had gathered at a rural schoolhouse outside Ayutla to hear a recruiting pitch by fighters from the People's Insurgent Revolutionary Army (EPRI), a splinter group of the small People's Revolutionary Army (EPR).

Thankfully, this time both the state and local governments seem willing so far to avoid escalating a confrontation with the communities. Soldiers as well as state and federal police maintain their own checkpoints on the outskirts of Ayutla and other towns, sometimes just a few hundred yards from those of the vigilantes.

They allow the armed community posses to pass through the checkpoints unmolested, something unheard of almost anywhere in Mexico, where the right to bear arms is severely restricted.

InSight Crime Analysis

Both official injustice and vigilante justice have deep roots in Mexico that have only been strengthened by the unhinged violence of recent times.

Lynchings of suspected thieves, rapists and murderers are common in rural villages and fringe urban neighborhoods alike. Other gang-besieged villages -- notably the indigenous community of Cheran in Michoacan state and the Zetas-plagued town of Cuencame in Durango to the north -- have tried to defend themselves, with mixed results.

In addition, gangster bands like La Familia Michoacana, the Gulf Cartel and the so-called Pacific Federation (aka the Sinaloa Cartel) have at various times tried to present themselves as public as defenders of the people against extortion, kidnapping and violence at the hands of the Zetas and other rivals.

In that, they've echoed the Colombian gang kingpins of the 1980s, whose bloody campaign against leftist guerrilla kidnappings of their relatives laid the foundation for the right-wing paramilitary armies of the 1990s and the last decade.

A shadowy group calling itself the "Mata Zetas," or "Zeta Killers," appeared in a video 15 months ago claiming responsibility for killing 35 people in the port of Veracruz, whose bodies were dumped at a busy intersection in an upscale suburban retail district. In the video about 20 men in military-style uniform are seen clutching assault weapons in the style of trained soldiers, flanking a leader who read a manifesto claiming that the group was acting on behalf of Mexico's beleaguered citizens.

Subsequent investigations uncovered little connection between the victims and either the Zetas or crime of any sort.

Though claiming to be an armed “citizens' movement," the Mata Zetas seem more likely to be linked to allies of Chapo Guzman, who are battling the Zetas across much of northern and eastern Mexico.

Many Mexican city dwellers consider Guerrero and its people to be “Mexico bronco,” or "untamed Mexico" -- a guaranteed and perennial source of trouble.

While not outwardly political, as far as favoring one party or the other, the current community militias display the region's traditional distaste for Mexico's national government and its many failings. In an area that has often rebelled against central power, any armed movement outside official state control has to raise policy makers' eyebrows.

Despite some tough rhetoric in the past month, both officials and the activists appear to want to defuse the situation through negotiation, as evidenced by Wednesday's agreement between the Interior Ministry and vigilante leaders. Government security forces are being kept on a leash so far. Community leaders are most likely to turn those charged with the most serious crimes over to state prosecutors.

It's quite possible that things will calm again quickly in Guerrero, and that the actions taken in and near Ayutla won't inspire communities elsewhere. Vigilante justice is no replacement for the formal kind, however fragile it might be.

Still, with Mexico's years of attempted judicial reforms failing to achieve much good so far, and security forces still struggling to bring violence and crime under control, the example of the Guerrero mountains could set a tempting and dangerous precedent for other besieged communities.

Investigations

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