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Vigilantes reportedly release captives in southern Mexico

February 19, 2013|By Cecilia Sanchez and Tracy Wilkinson
  • Hooded men guard the detainees at the central square of Ayutla. Hundreds of civilians armed with rifles, pistols and machetes decided to provide security for the communities of Guerrero state, creating a vigilante force, saying gangs were committing robberies, kidnappings and murder.
Hooded men guard the detainees at the central square of Ayutla. Hundreds… (Pedro Pardo / AFP/ Getty…)

MEXICO CITY -- Vigilantes who were threatening to subject a group of alleged criminals to a “people’s court” abruptly released their captives Tuesday, avoiding, for now, a showdown with authorities.

Saying the government has not been able to protect them from drug traffickers and other violent gangs, villagers in the southern state of Guerrero took up arms this year and formed so-called self-defense patrols.

With homicides, rapes and other crimes spreading in much of central Mexico, so has the phenomenon of armed vigilantes. As of Tuesday, 20 towns in Guerrero along with municipalities in at least four other states reported patrols by armed residents who often wear masks and staff checkpoints.

In the town of Ayutla, in the southern mountains of Guerrero, the vigilantes had captured 53 people, “charged” them with various crimes and promised to try them in a people’s court this week. Under pressure from state authorities, last week they released 11 of the people accused of the most serious crimes.

But Bruno Placido, a spokesman for the group, which calls itself the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero, insisted this week that the trials would go ahead. He acknowledged, however, that they were continuing to negotiate with the government. “What we want is to cooperate toward peace in our communities,” he said in a telephone interview.

On Tuesday, before dawn and under cover of darkness, the rest of the detained men and women were released -- some into the custody of state authorities and others into their hometowns, according to reports from the scene. They had been held nearly two months. There was no official comment from the state governor’s office, and Placido did not return phone calls.

The spectacle of desperate residents taking the law into their own hands embarrassed authorities, including the new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Officials at all levels were struggling to balance the need to restore order without antagonizing clearly distressed communities.

The groups won applause in some sectors for taking up security where corrupt local police, often in cahoots with the drug gangs, did not. Many residents have expressed approval, and a number of lawmakers suggested making the groups more formal, giving them proper uniforms and equipment. In one incident last month, the vigilantes shot and wounded a Mexico City couple that failed to stop at one of their ad hoc roadblocks.

In some ways, the groups are a newer version of a string of “community police” forces made up of locals in the 1990s in Guerrero and tacitly recognized by authorities. Today’s iteration, however, is born of the brutal violence that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives in slightly more than six years.

Human rights leaders have expressed concern.

“There is no justification for groups of armed and hooded men … to take justice into their own hands and attempt to sidestep the state’s functions,” Raul Plascencia, president of the semiautonomous Mexican National Human Rights Commission, told reporters this week. “That can lead us to an even worse dead end.”

In a separate statement, he said there was a “very tenuous line” between self-defense groups and paramilitary forces.

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