Vigilantes, most of whom are farmers and businessmen, patrol the streets of Ayutla. (Kirsten Luce)

Over the weekend, the remains of one of the 43 students missing from Guerrero, Mexico, were identified by DNA evidence. The students had been missing since late September, when they were last seen being rounded up by police. Gang members would later claim to having shot the students to death and then burning the bodies and throwing them into a river, which Human Rights Watch has described as the worst case of abuse to take place in Latin America in the past few decades.

Guerrero is Mexico’s second-poorest state and had the nation’s highest homicide rate in 2013. The region has been plagued for years by a host of drug-cartel-related problems, including extortion and kidnapping. After a constant landslide of violent crimes related to drug cartels and rival gangs, the tension throughout some small communities in Mexico has reached a fever pitch. Dissatisfaction with President Enrique Peña Nieto’s handling of drug-related crimes has increased and has sparked demonstrations across Mexico City.

In 2013, Photojournalist Kirsten Luce followed a group of vigilante citizens in Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero who banded together to take up arms and create autodefensas, or self-defense groups, to protect their communities as Mexico’s increasingly complicated drug war continues. They formed out of a simultaneous need to control the cartels in this region and growing distrust in the local, state and federal authorities to help them. That sentiment reverberates still today in the wake of the missing students who many suspect where taken by corrupt municipal police. But in the midst of the formation of these autodefensas in Guerrero, skepticism that rival drug cartels may be arming some of these citizens groups in several communities has continued to grow.

Last year citizens created their own autodenfensa in Ayutla, with road checkpoints that monitor traffic moving through their area. Masked men round up and detain fellow residents or visitors that they claim are responsible for chronic extortion, kidnappings and disappearances. The impoverished region in Southern Mexico is mostly agricultural and has become a hub for the production and transportation of marijuana and poppies. It has become increasingly violent, with residents saying that they cannot rely on help from the federal government. The trend toward self-policing has become more visible with communities being emboldened to create their own volunteer forces. Citizens in Ayutla have even taken to holding ‘people’s court, complete with school directors and community members serving as de factor judges.


Citizens of Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero, Mexico, and surrounding villages take up arms in self-defense against drug cartels and criminals who they say are threatening their subsistence. (Kirsten Luce)

A group of men are captured and taken to a remote location to be held. Later they would be presented in a ‘people’s court,’ with the intention to publicly shame them for their involvement in certain crimes. (Kirsten Luce)

A vigilante signals a vehicle to stop at a checkpoint in Tutepec, on the outskirts of Ayutla. (Kirsten Luce)

A vigilante monitors the road in Tutepec. Though many in the community feel safer since the armed groups began monitoring and patrolling, no one knows whether the situation will be sustainable. (Kirsten Luce)

Detainees are transported to a community center in the outskirts of Ayutla, where they will be held and guarded by volunteers. (Kirsten Luce)

Residents hold a public presentation of over 50 detainees and the charges they face in a “people’s court.” Detainees are held in community centers and empty buildings with armed guards while awaiting their fate. (Kirsten Luce)

Detainees are locked and guarded inside a community center in a village outside of Ayutla. (Kirsten Luce)

The Autodefensa imposed a curfew during some tense times in in 2013. These vendors are packing up for the evening. (Kirsten Luce)

Women in the community of San Juan de Las Palmas offer food and drinks to community police members after a mission in February 2013. Most of the community support the efforts of the group. (Kirsten Luce)

A group of men patrol the streets of Ayutla de los Libres, Mexico. (Kirsten Luce)