In Mexico, an upsurge of vigilantism

April 12, 2013

Three months ago, Pedro Garibo was a farmer tilling the wild and arid lands of Mexico’s Guerrero state. Today, he is a vigilante standing at an improvised roadblock on a section of the old Mexico City-to-Acapulco highway with a semiautomatic rifle across his chest.

Dressed in hand-me-down tracksuit bottoms and sandals, the 35-year-old Garibo and some like-minded locals accompanying him say they are fed up with the robberies, extortions, rapes and murders that Mexico’s drugs gangs have inflicted on the population.

“We are here to restore law and order,” he said, pointing to a hapless-looking troupe of about 30 men between the ages of 15 and 70 and armed with machetes, .22 caliber rifles, automatic shotguns and .380 pistols. “Organized crime has gone beyond the state’s ability to keep the peace, so we are doing it ourselves.”

All over Guerrero state, as well as in other parts of Mexico, self-defense or vigilante groups are springing up in response to the unanswered threat of criminal gangs.

Garibo says that in Tierra Colorada, the small, sun-baked town where he is keeping vigil, at least 250 people have taken up arms. The six surrounding municipalities have dozens of communities. Each community has at least two self-defense groups comprising 12 men each, he says.

That Guerrero should be the focus of the latest phase of Mexico’s drugs-based security problem is hardly surprising. The mountainous state that hugs the country’s Pacific coast has for decades been a center of marijuana and heroin production. More recently, the region has seen mass kidnappings, murders and even beheadings as rival drug gangs fight for control of lucrative international smuggling routes.

But the appearance of the groups is a reminder that for all the investors’ euphoria surrounding the new administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s drug war — and the violence it spawns — is still very much alive.

According to Reforma, Mexico’s leading daily newspaper, there were 2,351 murders related to organized crime during the first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s administration — 13 more than during the last 100 days of the previous administration.

This week, the government published figures showing a 17 percent drop over the four months since the beginning of December compared with the previous four months. Even so, officials were quick to dampen expectations. “It’s too early to assume triumphant attitudes,” said Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the interior minister.

Whatever the true number, nobody disputes that violent incidents occur daily. This month, a man carrying an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire in a bar in the northern city of Chihuahua, killing seven people. A U.S. citizen was among four killed last week in attacks, one involving a grenade, targeting bars in the central city of Guadalajara. Horror spread through Mexico state, which surrounds the capital, when the bodies of two men were found hanging from a bridge recently.

The new government, which took office Dec. 1, is still putting in place its security policy. One aspect involves creating a “gendarmerie,” with initial personnel of 10,000 but set to grow in the coming months, to police the country’s most violent municipalities.

Another move has been to dissolve the Public Security Ministry, placing the federal police, one of more than 2,000 separate police forces operating in Mexico’s sometimes chaotic federal system, under the command of the Interior Ministry. The idea is to improve coordination at the government level.

But it is clear that Peña Nieto is not expecting results anytime soon. In comments last month, the 46-year-old member of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) appeared to play down expectations, saying that it would be reasonable to assess the security situation only in 12 months’ time.

Meanwhile, and in an acknowledgment of the growing vigilante movement, Roberto Campa, a high-ranking official at the Interior Ministry, said recently: “We understand that there are some regions where desperation, born of the inability of some authorities to apply the law, has made some groups try to solve things by themselves without respecting the law.”

One of the most obvious concerns about the vigilantes is their almost complete lack of training. Esteban Ramos Gallardo, a member of the group patrolling Tierra Colorada, admits that there have been mistakes.

“We have arrested some people on the basis of information from the community that turned out to be false,” he said. “But that is a learning curve — now we force people who make accusations against others to sign pieces of paper to swear that the information is true.”

For now, many people are delighted to see the appearance of groups apparently bent on restoring law and order. One resident of Tierra Colorada, who declined to give his name, said he felt much safer with the vigilantes in place. “We have started to go out at night again,” he said. “For the first time in years, I feel that someone is looking after me.”

Longer-term, though, there is a worry that the groups could grow in autonomy and power, usurping local authorities altogether and becoming answerable only to themselves. That is what happened in Colombia, where the self-defense groups that proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s, in response to the activities of left-wing guerrillas, morphed into drug trade-financed paramilitaries far more terrifying than the threat they originally formed to combat.

Asked what the head of the municipal police force in Tierra Colorada thought of the vigilantes, Ramos Gallardo said: “It doesn’t matter. We arrested him this week on suspicion of being involved in organized crime.”

Yet for all those dangers, Mexico’s persistent levels of violence, and the state’s apparent inability to respond to it, suggest that the groups in Guerrero and elsewhere are not about to lay down their shotguns and machetes.

As the sun starts to dip, Ramos Gallardo waves off yet another pickup truck carrying armed farmers to patrol the highway.

“If the authorities could guarantee an end to the kidnappings and crime, we would go away,” he said. “But they can’t.”

— Financial Times

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