Mexican vigilantes thumb through the newspaper- possibly in search of articles about themselves. Photo/Dario Lopez-MillsGUERRERO- Gunmen toting rifles and wearing masks have set up roadblocks at dozens of rural villages throughout the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in recent weeks. But these men, usually armed with antique revolvers or single-shot hunting rifles, are not affiliated with any cartel or military unit.
Instead, these men are local ranchers and farmers who have decided to take up arms against robbers and drug traffickers that have been plaguing their villages in Mexico's ongoing narcoinsurgency.
A dozen villages in the area have risen up in armed revolt against local drug traffickers that have terrorized the region and a government that residents say is incapable of protecting them from organized crime.While the federal government has expressed alarm at the spread of vigilante groups in the rural villages, state officials in Guerrero seem more sympathetic to the situation faced by villages like Ayutla. In fact, a 1996 state law allows towns to form their own "community police" organizations. One state official has even proposed buying the armed ranchers and farmers uniforms so they won't be mistaken for highway robbers or cartel enforcers.
The villages in the hilly southern Mexican state of Guerrero now forbid the Mexican army and state and federal police from entering. Ragtag militias carrying a motley arsenal of machetes, old hunting rifles and the occasional AR-15 semiautomatic rifle control the towns. Strangers aren't allowed entry. There is a 10 p.m. curfew. More than 50 prisoners, accused of being in drug gangs, sit in makeshift jails. Their fates hinge on public trials that began Thursday when the accused were arraigned before villagers, who will act as judge and jury.
Crime is way down—for the moment, at least. Residents say kidnapping ceased when the militias took charge, as did the extortions that had become the scourge of businessmen and farmers alike. The leader of one militia group, who uses the code name G-1 but was identified by his compatriots as Gonzalo Torres, puts it this way: "We brought order back to a place where there had been chaos. We were able to do in 15 days what the government was not able to do in years."
The uprising around Ayutla, a two-hour drive from the resort city of Acapulco, differs from the others because it has started to spread locally. In the two weeks, bands in six other towns in Guerrero state have declared vigilante rule, including in Iguala, a city of 140,000. In the nearby Jalisco state, groups say they are considering similar action.
Ayutla's mayor, Severo Castro, says he welcomes the new groups. On a recent evening, he pointed toward a checkpoint blocks away and said the town is nearly crime-free for the first time in years.
"There are two police departments now," he said. "The ones in uniform and another masked one, which is much more brave."
That sentiment seems to be shared even among local police, who are still technically on duty but who now seem limited to the role of directing traffic around the central square, leaving the rest of the patrolling and police work to the militias.
Police Commander Juan Venancio, a broad-faced middle-aged man with a mustache, said local police are too afraid of organized crime to make arrests.
"We could arrest a gangster for extortion, but if we couldn't prove it, we'd have to let him go," he said. "But then what about our families? Do you think we're not scared they will take revenge on us if they are out? Of course we are scared."
In some ways, life is getting back to normal here after years of insecurity. Village rodeos attract young cowboys and girls in traditional dresses, and weddings stretch late into the evening. The same townspeople who were once extorted by drug gangs now bring melons and tamales to the militiamen standing guard at checkpoints.
By 2006, Mexico's drug war had begun to weaken its already-troubled institutions. Areas like Mexico City remained under tight control, but the power of the state in rural areas diminished. Some 65,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006, but only a fraction of the killings have been solved—or even investigated, according to the government and legal experts.
"Mexico has a 2% conviction rate, and Mexicans have taken note of that," says Sergio Pastrana, a sociology professor at the College of Guerrero who has studied rural regions. "It's caused unrest and a determination among some to take the reins themselves."
Villagers in Ayutla say the town was never crime-free—bandits sometimes robbed horsemen riding the road, for example—but the specter of organized crime was something new.
Several years ago, a group known by villagers as Los Pelones—literally, the Bald Ones—entered Ayutla and began a racket which included both drugs and other crime, people here say.
Mr. Castro, the mayor, says his 19-year-old daughter was kidnapped two years ago and he paid a "large sum" for her release. Last July, the body of the town's police chief Óscar Suástegui was found in a garbage dump outside town. He had been shot 13 times. Authorities said it looked like the work of a criminal group. No arrests were made in either case.
Townspeople say Los Pelones moved into extortions last year, demanding protection money from those who ran stalls in the market adjoining Ayutla's central plaza. The payments were usually 500 pesos, or $40, a month per stall, according to several vendors, a large sum in the impoverished town.
As harvest season approached last fall, the group fanned out into the countryside, demanding monthly payments of 200 pesos, about $16, for each animal that farmers owned. Several farmers say the gang made a list of those who had agreed to pay and those who had not.
In November, a spate of kidnappings began. Gunmen in the village of Plan de Gatica captured the village commissioner, a kind of locally elected mayor, along with a priest in a nearby village who had refused to pay extortion fees for his church. A second commissioner was kidnapped in the village of Ahuacachahue in December. The three men eventually were released after ransoms were paid, villagers say.
When a village commissioner named Eusebio García was captured on Jan. 5, several dozen villagers from Rancho Nuevo grabbed weapons and formed a search party. The next morning, they found Mr. García in a nearby house with his kidnappers, who were arrested and jailed, say the militiamen.
"This was the turning point, the moment everything exploded here," says Bruno Placido, one of the leaders of the armed groups. "We had shown the power armed people have over organized-crime groups."
As word spread of Mr. García's release, farmers in villages around Ayutla also took up arms. Their plan: to descend into Ayutla, where they believed the rest of the Los Pelones gang was based. That night they raided numerous homes throughout Ayutla, arresting people they believed to be lookouts, drug dealers, kidnappers and hit men, and brought them to makeshift jails. Other villagers set up checkpoints across the town.
The vigilantes were now in charge. They instituted the curfew and declared that state and federal authorities would be turned away at checkpoints. Villagers were allowed to make accusations against others, anonymously, at the homes of militiamen.
The group ordered most schools shut down, saying Los Pelones might try to take children hostage in exchange for prisoners detained by the vigilantes.
"I hadn't seen anything quite like this before," says state Education Secretary Silvia Romero, who traveled to Ayutla after the initial uprising to negotiate for classes to resume. Some teachers agreed that suspending school was necessary until all top gang leaders were under lock and key. "The students were an easy target for the criminals," says teacher Ignacio Vargas.
Many schools have since reopened. The army, after negotiations, set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the region. Beyond that, the militiamen remain in control and no state or federal officials are permitted to enter the villages around Ayutla.
Townspeople interviewed recently said the masked men are ordinary farmers and businessmen, not rival criminals looking to oust Los Pelones. The mayor agrees. Still, Mr. Torres, the lead militiaman in Ayutla, acknowledged the risk of "spies from organized crime coming into our ranks." He said he encourages his men to turn in anyone seeking to join the vigilantes who might be linked to crime groups.
A makeshift detention center run by villagers in El Mezón is home to two dozen men and women accused of being with Los Pelones. There is no budget to run the prison, villagers say. The prisoners eat donated tortillas and rice and sleep on cardboard on the floor. On a recent afternoon, seven men were clustered behind bars in a tiny, dark room that smelled of urine. It was hot and dirty. There were no visible signs of physical abuse.
The masked commander of the facility, who wouldn't give his name and declined to allow interviews with the prisoners, said the men are being treated well and will be given a chance to defend themselves in a public trial in the village. They won't be allowed lawyers, he said, and villagers will decide their sentences by a consensus vote.
Possible punishments include hard labor constructing roads and bridges in chain gangs, he said, although it will be up to the villagers, not the militia, to decide. He added that executions, which are not permitted under Mexican law even in murder cases, were not on the table.
"The village will be their judge," he said. "If the village saves you, you will be free. If not, then you are condemned."
Nightly raids of suspected drug traffickers have provided the militiamen with a clutch of high-powered weapons, including AR-15 rifles. It isn't clear how the men will be trained to use the weapons.
In 2011, the Michoacan village of Cheran ran out local police and seized the armory after accusing the police department of acting in collusion with illegal loggers and cartel sicarios acting as their protection and brokers before the natives blockaded the rural village from the rest of Mexico.
ELSEWHERE IN GUERRERO- Six men have been arrested in connection with the brutal rape and robbery of a group of tourists in the resort town of Acapulco earlier this month.
The gunmen burst into a rented beach house on Monday, tied up and held at gunpoint six Spanish men as they attacked the women for several hours.News of the gang-rape came as Mexico is trying to once again marketing itself as a safe destination for tourists under the new administration of President Enrique Nieto.
A seventh woman escaped after telling the attackers she was a Mexican.
Most of the Spanish women are reported to be residents of Mexico who had travelled to Acapulco, on the Pacific coast, for a weekend break.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the suspects had confessed.
The police said they were looking for one more suspect. Acapulco is one of Mexico's most famous beach resorts, but it has recently suffered from drug-related violence.
TAMAULIPAS- The police chief for the border city of Nuevo Laredo has reportedly been missing for nearly a week. Local officials and media has remained curiously silent on chief Roberto Balmori Garza's disappearance even after two of his brothers were found murdered in a parked car in neighboring Nuevo Leon state- one of his brothers was an agent for the federal prosecutor's office.
Interestingly, Garza had no officers at his command for nearly two years. Patrol cars sat idle behind a locked gate at the police department's motor pool and bicycles once ridden by the city's Tourist Police remain in a cage locked inside City Hall. The municipal police force in Nuevo Laredo was disbanded after allegations of corruption in 2011. Since then, the streets have been patrolled by soldiers and state police officers typically travelling in three vehicle convoys.
Manuel Farfan, a 55 year old retired brigadier general in the Mexican Army, was Garza's predecessor and shot dead along with two of his bodyguards in February 2011- after barely a month as police chief in Neuvo Laredo.
After a lengthy and protracted battle with their former benefactors in the Gulf Cartel, the Los Zetas managed to secure territory throughout the state of Tamaulipas- including Nuevo Laredo- to expand their lucrative drug smuggling operations. Reportedly, the Zetas are being challenged by the Sinaloa cartel as well as elements of the Gulf Cartel and Caballeros Templar for control of Nuevo Laredo.
US Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III- killed by drug traffickers in November
CALIFORNIA- A US Coast Guardsman was killed in December after the landing craft he was aboard was rammed by drug smugglers in a panga boat near the Channel Islands, off the coast from Santa Barbara, CA.
Officials say a Coast Guard maritime patrol aircraft detected the panga boat, and sent the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut out to investigate.Santa Cruz Island is uninhabited and part of the Channel Islands National Park. The remote nature of the island has made it fairly popular with smugglers since the days of Spanish colonization.
They say the cutter then sent its small boat out, which was operating without any type of running lights.
They say when it approached the panga boat, it turned on its blue law enforcement light and the suspects' vessel sped toward the Coast Guard's smaller boat, hitting it before taking off.
Officials say the two Coast Guard members were thrown into the water after the crash, and were immediately picked up by the Coast Guard's boat.
Officials with the Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office tell KSBY 34-year-old Terrell Horne III, 34 from Redondo Beach, was killed.
The two Mexican nationals, Jose Meija-Leyva and Manuel Beltran-Higuera, were charged in the killing and were arraigned in federal court in Los Angeles on Dec 21st.