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In Mexico, Vigilantism Rises on Surge of Crime, Public Disgust

As faith in the police declines, townspeople increasingly mete out their own justice.

August 22, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SANTA ROSA XOCHIAC, Mexico — Maria del Refugio Perez is a 60-year-old street vendor who says she abhors violence. But this month, she joined a raging mob that corralled, pummeled and hog-tied a suspected thief and almost burned her alive.

Drawn by a butcher's shouts that she had caught the woman grabbing money from a cash drawer at her shop, Perez and other neighbors quickly seized her. Once the church bells in this Mexico City suburb started ringing, signaling a town emergency, the mob grew in size -- and anger.

"These things happen because the authorities don't do anything," Perez said, recalling days later how the woman, Juana Moncayo, was tied to a flagpole in the town plaza for several hours as the crowd of 200 insulted and beat her. "Some were yelling, 'Burn her! Burn her!' " when the police finally came to take her away, Perez said.

"I don't like that people act that way, but so what, if it is the only way that delinquents know what they are risking," Perez said.

She and others here said they were fed up with a recent plague of break-ins, assaults and vandalism, and decided to take justice into their own hands -- just like other communities across Mexico have in recent weeks.

"People are very united here. Since the police don't do anything, it's up to us to show the criminals, and others thinking of doing the same thing, what happens when they are caught," said Jose Vargas, a clothing vendor in the town plaza.

Although statistics on mob justice aren't kept, experts agree that vigilantism is rising across Mexico in step with public disgust over violent crimes and the government's inability to stop them. It's the same disgust that sent a quarter of a million marchers into Mexico City's streets two months ago.

Since the march, politicians at all levels have promised to do something about the problem. President Vicente Fox unveiled a 10-point plan last week that includes $100 million in anti-crime funds by the end of the year -- in addition to the $250 million he had budgeted for security. Fox also has promised to increase the federal budget for security next year to $500 million.

Three days earlier, Fox accepted the resignation of the nation's top federal law enforcement officer, Alejandro Gertz Manero, who said he was quitting because he was approaching retirement age.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has also taken action, cracking down on panhandlers, street vendors, windshield washers and prostitutes and promising a 15% reduction in the crime rate over the next year.

Reliable crime statistics are hard to come by, but experts agree that violent crimes, especially kidnappings, have increased in Mexico in recent years. With abductions expected to rise past 3,000 this year, Mexico could replace Colombia as the country with the most cases, victim advocacy groups say.

"It will be difficult to improve things in the short term, but at least the government has made this a top priority, which is a change," said Jorge Chabat, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "The added money will help. That is a real advance. [Fox] put his money where his mouth is."

But people in towns such as Santa Rosa Xochiac remain deeply skeptical that crime will recede anytime soon. Distrust of the local police, seen as being in cahoots with criminals, runs deep.

Several townspeople here said the mob didn't want to give Moncayo up to the police because they feared that she would bribe them and they would set her free.

"We knew once she left in the patrol car, they weren't going to do anything because they never do with the corrupted ones," said homemaker Consuelo Garcia, 44. "But at least in the end, the thieves know they can't play with the people of Santa Rosa, that here they face consequences."

In the meantime, they vow they will continue to take the law into their hands, as have several communities recently:

* A crowd of 100 in the town of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas state threw their mayor and three members of his staff in jail for allegedly misappropriating funds.

* Enraged residents of San Pablo Oztotepec, a suburb of Mexico City, beat two suspected car thieves to unconsciousness. Only the intervention of an assistant city prosecutor saved them from being bludgeoned to death, authorities say.

* A crowd in the Cuajimalpa section of the capital severely beat a policeman after he lost control of his patrol car, killing one person. The officer was rescued, but not before the crowd burned his vehicle.

* Residents of a small town in Campeche state burned several vehicles belonging to a visiting circus after one of the employees was suspected of sexually molesting a 6-year-old girl.

* A man in Yucatan state was doused with gasoline and nearly set on fire after a crowd accused him of torching 15 houses.

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