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In Mexico, a legal breakdown invites brutal justice

Across Mexico, and especially in northern border areas, the ravages of the drug cartels and the breakdown of the legal system are giving way to a wave of vigilante violence.

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Map of Ascencion, Mexico
By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 12:25 AM

IN ASCENCION, MEXICO -- In this dusty farm town, an hour south of the U.S. border, more than 40 people were abducted - one a week - in the first nine months of the year.

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Then, on Sept. 21, the kidnappings stopped.

That was the day a gang of kidnappers with AK-47s burst into Lolo's seafood restaurant and tried to abduct the 17-year-old cashier. A mob of enraged residents chased down two of the teenage attackers and lynched them in a cotton field on the edge of town.

"We're not proud of what happened," said Georgina "Coca" Gonzalez, who helped form an armed citizens' group after the incident to fight crime and prevent kidnappings. "But we're united now - the whole town. And we all want justice."

Across the country, and especially in northern Mexico, the breakdown of the legal system is giving way to a wave of vigilante violence. As Mexicans grow frustrated with the depredations of drug mafias and the corruption and incompetence of authorities, some are meting out punishment the old-fashioned way, taking an eye for eye, or in some cases, an eye for a tooth.

Some of these retributive acts have happened spontaneously, such as the Ascencion "uprising," as many here have celebrated it. But other killings in the past year appear to have been carried out by shadowy forces who have left bodies along highways or hanging from bridges with handwritten notes that advertise the dead as "extortionists" or "kidnappers."

Mexico has a long history of rough justice carried out by citizens, but it has traditionally occurred in isolated villages, in the mountains or jungles, often among Mexico's indigenous peoples.

Today, vigilante groups appear to be at work even in major cities.

Late last year, authorities discovered four bodies, including an alleged Monterrey gangster, Hector Saldana, and his two brothers, in a car in Mexico City. The deaths were announced by Mauricio Fernandez, the new mayor of the Monterrey suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia, even before police identified the bodies.

Fernandez said he had nothing to do with the killings, although he boasted of his plans to create "cleansing teams" to rid his city of criminals.

"Sometimes coincidences happen in life. It's better to see it that way," Fernandez told a Monterrey newspaper.

'Social cleansing'

In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of violence, murder suspects seem more likely to end up dead than appear before a judge. Several days after gunmen massacred 13 people at a party there in October, two heads were found in plastic bags on the hood of a car with a note warning, "This is what happens to those who kill women and children."


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