In Mexico, a legal breakdown invites brutal justice

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.

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."

A group of Mexican senators has called for an investigation into extrajudicial killings in the country, alleging that "death squads" of current and former soldiers and police were to blame for some of the more than 30,000 killings since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country's drug cartels four years ago.

According to Sen. Ricardo Monreal, wealthy business families have hired former police and soldiers to guard their interests and protect them from kidnapping and extortion. Some of the paramilitary-style groups work as contract killers for the drug cartels, the senator said; others might work as freelancers for the families of victims, who are seeking revenge or tired of paying extortion. Finally, some may be engaged in a kind of "social cleansing" aimed at low-level gang members, petty criminals and drug addicts.

Gustavo de la Rosa, a top human rights official in Chihuahua, Mexico's most violent state, said the flood of killings and other crimes in recent years has resulted in the "collapse" of the legal system, leaving frustrated citizens to view raw vengeance as their only recourse.

"First, people wait for the government to deliver justice," de la Rosa said. "Then they move onto the next phase, when they go looking for it themselves. I think we're now at the beginning of the second stage."

More than 96 percent of crimes committed in the city over the past three years remain unsolved, according to a database maintained by the city's El Diario newspaper.

At the state prosecutor's offices in Juarez, unsolved homicide cases were stacked up in manila folders, rising from investigators' desks in mountains of paper.

'We won't take it'

Members of the armed citizens' group in Ascencion said they're not trying to challenge the drug cartels or interfere with their smuggling operations, which would be suicidal. But they said they can no longer abide the kidnappings, rapes, shakedowns and other abuses that have terrorized residents.

"We won't take it anymore," said Victor Hernandez, a block captain delegated to oversee security in Ascencion, which the group has divided into quadrants.

Mexican gun control laws limit citizens to owning smaller-caliber weapons and a handful of bullets for home defense, but group members said they were not going to leave themselves vulnerable and outgunned.

In Ascension, the group has erected a siren tower, like the kind that might warn residents in Kansas of an impending tornado, to alert everyone in town that a kidnapping is in progress. Members of the group then quickly mobilize and block the highway that passes through town.

With support from local officials, the group has also dug a trench around the town, wide and deep enough that a vehicle could not escape by driving off-road.

Members of the group said they plan to turn suspects over to authorities but were prepared to "disappear" them if authorities fail to do their jobs. The body of a suspected stereo thief was found on the edge of town in October, as rumors circulated that he too had been lynched.

"This whole country is suffering," said Fernando Saenz, the citizen group's elected leader. "It's time for the people to take over, because the government isn't doing its job. We have to take care of ourselves."

Not waiting for help

Saenz, 63, was one of the residents who attacked the kidnappers on Sept. 21. Some in the crowd broke their hands and wrists as they pounded the suspects furiously, he said.

Federal police pulled the kidnappers from the mob, and then handcuffed and locked them in a police vehicle. As the crowd swelled, chanting "Kill them! Kill them!" and "We want justice!" residents blocked the police from leaving or landing helicopters.

Already bloodied from the beating, the kidnapping suspects died inside the sweltering-hot police vehicle. No one was charged, which is not surprising given the huge crowd and the widespread public support for what happened.

"These people are farmers; they're not murderers," said Julian Lebaron, a leader of the large Mormon community south of Ascension. "I don't approve of the lynching here in Ascencion, but the spirit of what happened here is what we need in Mexico."

In his own town, Lebaron said residents have erected a watchtower, and each night two men climb the ladder and peer out into the darkness through night-vision goggles. Asked what they would do to stop a kidnapping or assault, Lebaron said, "We would call the authorities, but we wouldn't sit around and wait for them to come help us. We would defend ourselves."

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