The Rise of Mexico’s Vigilante Militias: Will They Help or Hurt the Drug War?

Mexico Vigilantes

An armed and masked man guards a roadblock at the entrance to the community of Cruz Quemada, near Ayutla, on Jan. 19, 2013.

Clad in sombreros and baseball caps and clutching assault rifles, shotguns and machetes, the men take defensive positions on a hillside neighborhood of the ramshackle mountain town of Tierra Colorada and gather residents from their homes. You have suffered too much at the hands of kidnappers, extortionists and drug cartels, they tell them. It is time to fight back. “If you are in favor of our community police and want to join or support us, then step forward,” says Esteban Ramos, a leader of the local militia. First the crowd is silent. Then a middle-aged man in a red t-shirt stands up and walks forward. He is followed by a young man barely out of his teens. Finally, nine men come forward with their hands raised to the applause of the crowd. A new squad has been born.

Such vigilante groups have been spreading rapidly across Mexico’s southwestern mountains this year as crime-weary residents decide to take justice into their own hands. They now claim thousands of adherents here in the state of Guerrero, where Tierra Colorada is located, and have emerged in at least seven other states. Militias made up of farmers, mechanics, shopkeepers and taxi drivers set up check points, patrol streets and drag alleged criminals into makeshift prisons. While they have handed over most detainees to state prosecutors, they have put some on public trials, shot others dead and come under fire themselves. They have also had some tense stand-offs with police and soldiers. When a militia commander was killed last month in Tierra Colorada, hundreds of vigilantes descended on it, detaining several police officers before handing them over to state officials.

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