During Mexico’s brutal seven-year-long war against drug cartels, the country has endured such horrendous levels of violence and crime that now some Mexicans are taking the law into their own hands.
A growing number of vigilante groups are springing up across the country, with groups of men – and women – picking up arms to defend their neighbourhoods and farms, in the face of what they see as corrupt police forces and an inefficient military.
Members of the self-defence forces, known as the fuerzas autodefensas, say they have no choice. But their behaviour has not always been pretty, with masked vigilantes roaming through towns and along highways with machetes and rifles. Examples of their brand of vigilante justice includes setting up their own roadblocks, seizing police officers at gunpoint, detaining people for as long as six weeks and subjecting them to unofficial trials.
The federal government has tolerated some self-defence squads, but authorities have arrested others found carrying heavy-calibre weapons that most Mexicans are prohibited from having.
In southern Mexico this week, members of a masked vigilante group in the town of Aquila demanded that the government free 44 colleagues arrested on weapons and organized-crime charges. The government accuses the vigilantes of using their weapons to settle internal disputes with other townspeople.
Jesus Reyna, the acting governor of the state of Michoacan, says the vigilantes were not fighting the Knights Templar drug cartel, as they claimed, but were actually engaged in an internal dispute with other townspeople over royalties from a local iron ore mine. He suggested the armed group was motivated by economic interests, not public safety.
The vigilantes’ lawyer disputes that: “My clients did not form a group for criminal purposes,” Leonel Rivera said. “They were performing duties that the Mexican government has not been able to perform in many parts of the country, where authorities have not been able to guarantee the safety of the citizens of this country.”
While the fate of the arrested vigilantes of Aquila remains up in the air, members of fuerzas autodefensasas continue to show their force and anger in other communities.
In the neighbouring state of Guerrero, residents of the town of Xaltianguis swore in dozens of local women as members of the local “community police” squad. The women were given T-shirts and hunting rifles.
People in Xaltianguis blocked highways and briefly prevented the passage of Mexican soldiers in recent weeks as a way to demand respect for their movement.