Can Vigilante Justice Save Mexico?

Borderland Beat
February 7, 2013


Masked and armed men read newspapers as they stand guard at the entrance to the town of Ayutla, Mexico.

Masked and armed men read newspapers as they stand guard at the entrance to the town of Ayutla, Mexico.
PHOTO: AP/Dario Lopez-Mills

AYUTLA DE LOS LIBRES, Mexico — For almost a month now, hundreds of masked men wielding old shotguns, rifles, revolvers and machetes have claimed to be the law in the rugged mountains outside the faded resort of Acapulco.
Manning roadblocks and patrolling by the truckload, these citizen posses have been rounding up accused drug dealers, rapists, killers and rustlers under the wincing but winking watch of state and federal security forces.

Last week, the vigilantes paraded 54 captured men and women in front of thousands of their neighbors, the vague and unsubstantiated charges against them read aloud over loud speakers.

“Organized crime,” intoned a community leader as the accused were escorted into the covered square in El Mezon, a mostly Mixtec indigenous village belonging to Ayutla township, some 75 miles northeast of Acapulco. “Murder. Rape. Kidnapping. Extortion.”

Despite years of promised reforms,  justice remains cut from the thinnest of fabrics. Tens of thousands of purported criminals rot for years in Mexican state and federal prisons as they await trial. The convictions handed down for every 100 arrests can be counted on one hand, academic studies show.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, scarcely two months into a six-year term, has vowed to move away from his predecessor’s strategy of military-led offensives against drug trafficking gangs. Instead, the president plans to focus more on the robberies, extortion and violence that affect mostly ordinary Mexicans.

For Pena Nieto to pull that off, Mexican security analysts say he will need better local policing and criminal prosecutions, a high hurdle in much of the country. The villagers in these mountains aren’t holding their breath.

“The federal and state governments haven’t been able to do anything,” said Evert Castro, an Ayutla municipal councilman. “And we don’t have the capacity to fight these criminals. So the people got tired and decided to act on their own. We see this as a good thing.”

Following negotiations this week between community leaders and Guerrero’s governor, most of the detainees seem likely to be turned over to state prosecutors.

“They must be subjected to the established laws and institutions,” Gov. Angel Aguirre recently told local reporters in the state capital, Chilpancingo. “We are going to continue working to provide security and confidence so that a climate of harmony returns in communities where this problem is focused.”

But Bruno Placido Valerio, a founder of the volunteer forces that comprise the bulk of the vigilantes, told the crowd last week that the accused would remain in community custody for at least two more weeks, when another public assembly would be held.

“This is not taking justice into our own hands,” Placido Valerio told villagers. “We have to be just.”

Read the full article— Can Vigilante Justice Save Mexico?

Traces of Reality:  A 12-year old boy being trained as an assassin tells his story during the reported “community tribunal.”  Amid an environment of lawlessness and rampant corruption, where authorities are executed with alarming frequency, it’s not surprising to see such vigilante militias rise up to fill the security void.  It’s a development that’s been making more headlines over the past month, including local officials urging legal recognition of vigilante groups.  -DB