Citizens’ self-defense groups, or vigilantes calling themselves “community police,” are now active in 13 states and 68 municipalities across Mexico.
Although many rural parts of Mexico have a tradition of self-policing that dates back a decade or longer, there has been a surge in the formation of new groups in recent months due to the spread of organized crime into these areas, including increases in extortion and kidnappings.
The spike in violence in places like the state of Guerrero, combined with the minimal presence and weakness of police in rural areas, as well as the low level of public confidence in state institutions, are all contributing factors to the rise
of self-defense groups. “We want to escape the yoke of organized crime,” said one vigilante leaderabout the movement’s motivations. “They were charging us protection payments, extortion.”
While supporters of the groups say they are providing much-needed security, there are growing concerns they may turn into paramilitary groups or become involved with criminal groups. Raúl Plascencia, head of Mexicos Human Rights Commission, has warned, “there is a very thin line between these self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.”
Here is a state-by-state breakdown of vigilante activity:
- The recent self-policing phenomenon first began in Cherán, Michoacán in April 2011, when a group of residents took up arms to defend their forests against loggers with ties to drug cartels. Vigilantes set up roadblocks and night watches to fight back against unauthorized logging.
- Self-policing groups also exist in Tepalcatepec and Buenavista Tomatlán, towns in the western part of the state that have been overrun by organized crime. According to official reports, about 400 masked men, some armed with AK-47s and dressed in matching printed T-shirts, set up checkpoints at the entrances to Tepalcatepec.
- Authorities recently arrested 31 members of the Buenavista Tomatlán “community police” force in northern Michoacán and 34 members of a similar group in La Ruana. A few days later, another 17 vigilantes were arrested in La Ruana. The groups were accused of being fronts for drug trafficking. “The intelligence we are working with, the type of arms confiscated and other elements, indicates that these are people armed by organized crime groups that operate in Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima,” explained Eduardo Sánchez, Assistant Interior Secretary, regarding the La Ruana arrests.
- Four new self-defense groups emerged in the municipalities of Cherato, Cheratillo, 18 de Marzo, and Orúscato, all in central Michoacán.
- The new vigilante movement that took off in January has grown most prominently in Guerrero recently. According to the New York Times, this spike builds on a long-standing tradition of citizen police forces in the rural regions of the state. Before the outbreak, vigilante groups already claimed to be patrolling the streets of 77 towns and villages in Guerrero.
- The Regional Coordination of Community Authorities (CRAC), which began as the Community Police in 1995, has a deep history in the region. CRAC works in 60 communities in 10 municipalities to “stop common crime through surveillance by community police and the reeducation of those detained.”
- On January 5, the Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), originally formed to protest high electricity prices, emerged as a self-policing group in Ayutla de los Libres. It is now present in 41 towns across Guerrero.
- There have been two recorded killings thus far by the groups: the first on January 22, in the
town of Tixtla, where a suspected criminal was shot to death when he refused to stop for inspections at a roadblock. The second took place on February 20 in the community of Refugio, in Ayutla de los Libres, when vigilantes opened fire on a group of five armed suspects, killing one.
- Following a popular trial that began on January 31 in the town of Ayutla de los Libres, vigilante groups turned over 20 of the suspected criminals to state authorities. The vigilantes freed over 20 others following a “re-education process.” They now claim they have either freed or turned in all of the 54 detained criminals.
- On February 24, vigilante leaders announced that 20 self-policing groups from villages around Acapulco and Coyuca de Benítez will unite into one front. Spokesman Carlos García Jiménez said that the “community police force” would be setting up checkpoints the following week, and claimed the group was working toward official recognition from the government.
- At the request of rural farmers and ranchers, some 60 residents of Mapastepec, on the southern coast of Chiapas,
- to form a Rural Forces Squad (PFR) to work in collaboration with local authorities.
- With only 60 municipal police serving a population of 50,000 in the town and 200 surrounding communities, the town was previously ill-equipped to fight crime, particularly cattle theft, according to La Jornada. The Rural Forces Squad has been sworn in and armed by the government, but apart from thefts, they are required to refer any crime to authorities.
- Self-defense groups are
- in two communities in the eastern part of Morelos: Tetelcingo, in the municipality of Cuautla, and Tenextepango, in Ciudad Ayala. The groups formed in response to a surge in criminal acts, including vehicle theft, homicides, and attacks on storekeepers and credit holders at banks.
- In the indigenous community of Tetelcingo, the group has hung banners over streets and bridges to advise residents to remain vigilant for crime, and to warn criminals that they will be “put to death by the people” if they are apprehended in the area. State Secretary Jorge Messeguer Guillén said that the government is aware of the situation and that it “rejects any public use of force by one’s own hand.”
- In Tenextepango, a recent attack on an elderly woman in her own store riled up the anger of the community, which then began to organize to put an end to such crimes themselves.
- Residents of Santos Reyes Nopala formed their own self-policing group and declared themselves in rebellion against abuses of the army and members of the state police. After being sworn in by Mayor Fredy Gil Pineda Gopar, a member of the PRI, the 500 vigilantes took up rifles, shotguns, and machetes and set up the first roadblock at the entrance to the community. The governor of Oaxaca has vowed to dissolve the group.
- In two municipalities, Ascención and Galeana, members of the Mennonite and Mormon communities have taken up arms to end the kidnappings, murders, and acts of extortion that members of their families have experienced at the hands of organized crime groups.
- In the community of Obrera, in the capital city, residents have set up guards and taken up
homemade arms to stop thieves, though the local police intervened.
Estado de Mexico
- The Secretary General of the State of Mexico, Efrén Rojas Dávila, acknowledged that self-policing groups operate in the towns of Amatepec and Tlatlaya, in the southern part of the state.
- The only known self-defense group in Tabasco is People United Against Crime (PUCD), which emerged in Villahermosa in order to “clean” the city of organized criminal groups like Los Zetas. Governor Arturo Núñez Jiménez has denied the existence of PUCD, and claims to have “no evidence” that the group exists.
- On February 11, municipal leaders met with representatives of the state government, the military, and several indigenous groups, including 150 members of the indigenous Nahua group, in Cuautitlán de García Barragán to announce their decision to create a self-defense group. Town leaders have been faced with an increase in illegal mineral extraction and logging as well as organized crime.
- The vigilante movement has also spread to Veracruz, where there are self-policing groups in three different regions of the state, including Ciudad Mendoza, Acultzingo, and the northern region. The communications coordinator for the state of Veracruz, Gina Domínguez Colío, has denied that such groups exist in the state and claimed that the reports mistook protesting peasants in Acultzingo for vigilantes.
Today, the Mexican news website Animal Político reported the results of a public opinion surveyconducted by Parametría. The study found that approximately 6 out of 10 Mexicans approve of the self-defense groups. About 50% of those surveyed believe that the groups are “a way of helping authorities solve the problem of crime,” as opposed to 25% who responded that they constitute “taking justice into one’s own hands.”
Click the map below for an interactive version with more details. Animal Político also has a thorough map of self-defense groups across the country.