Portfolio: Mexico: Vigilante Justice

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From the Spring Issue "Sex & Sexuality"  

Photo Essay by Judith Matloff

Photos by Katie Orlinksy

TIERRA COLORADA, Mexico—The main road on the mountain ridge had vanished in a landslide, and what was once the tarmac hung off the cliff like a ribbon. Construction workers hired by the government excavated boulders so vehicles could pass. But anyone trying to plough through faced another obstacle—farmers with shotguns manning a roadblock on a curve. A driver exited his car to talk with the men in beige uniforms, who asked for his name and mission. Assured no mischief was intended, the citizen policeman at the barricade waved him on. “If you get stuck in the mud, alert us,” advised the man who appeared to be in charge, a corn farmer who volunteers for regular shifts to maintain order. “We control the path.”

Over the past year, self-defense units have spread across Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero and Michoacan to the west—defying the terror of drug gangs.

The vigilantes complain that authorities are complicit or impotent to end the abductions, assassinations, and extortions perpetrated by what is euphemistically called “organized crime.” An in-your-face challenge to authorities and drug lords alike, hundreds of peasants—like those on this hill—patrol in trucks, seizing towns, and taking prisoners. The sway of the vigilantes varies by the month as groups split and wither. But a safe estimate is that they are a formidable presence in at least two dozen municipalities.

Many villagers welcome vigilantes as the only answer to the drug violence that has killed so many thousands of Mexicans that hard numbers are impossible to track. Yet while acknowledging the state’s lost legitimacy, security experts see danger in yet more rogue forces running around with weapons and no accountability. “You don’t know who is the ultimate boss of these guys. The risk is that [at] some point, the self-defense units will get involved in drugs or extortion,” said Jorge Chabat, an expert on narco-trafficking from the Mexico City-based research center CIDE (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics).

Severo Castro is the mayor of Ayutla, a town in Guerrero where the movement ignited in January 2012. Angry peasants went door to door to rid the municipality of the bullies who trafficked heroin and harassed residents. Within weeks, most of the drug traffickers had fled, and order returned. But new abuses arose among the volunteer protectors and their organization, referred to as UPOEG (Union of People and Organizations of the State of Guerrero.)

“I think the groups have good intentions, but some members have begun to commit errors, for instance detaining people without proof,” Castro said. “They should not be moving around armed along the highway. It’s worth noting that within the self-defense groups are some people who have committed crimes. Now that I am getting to know these people, I realize that we don’t know everything about them.”

Above all, his aim is to avoid confrontation. “It’s not helpful. They have their own rules. If I go and say, ‘I know this citizen. He is a hard worker, a clean family man,’ they may release him freely. Or they may say, ‘Mr. Mayor, you are defending a criminal.’” While his state governor has reportedly tried to buy off the self-defense groups, the federal government has expressed intolerance for what it terms “vigilantes.” In mid-January, troops were deployed to try to disarm vigilante groups that have been fighting with the Knights Templar drug cartel in a particularly turbulent area of Michoacan.

The groups span a wide territory. Arguably, the greater legitimacy lies with community police in indigenous settlements, which for two decades have been exercising their constitutional right to enforce their brand of justice. They make judgments collectively in assemblies. Then there are the independent vigilantes who rather spontaneously, about a year ago, began brandishing high-caliber weapons to stand up to organized gangs. These include UPOEG and the Michoacan groups.

Indeed, rumors abound that the folks fighting the Knights Templar may be sponsored by a rival cartel, or rich property owners who want to defend their businesses.

Chabat saw dangerous precedents in Colombia, where squads ostensibly posing resistance to leftist guerrillas morphed into cocaine trafficking paramilitaries.

Mexico’s loose cannons could also go the way of the Yakuza mafia in Japan, which began by protecting communities and at some point came under the hire of rich criminals. “It would be best that these gangs don’t have any need to exist,” Chabat observes. But, he notes sadly, in absence of clean authority, they continue to reign.

The mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, are home to illegal poppy and marijuana cultivation. Drug war-related violence has engulfed the state for years, and citizens have taken up arms and formed community police or auto-defensa groups.

A community police group patrols on foot near Marquelia, Guerrero.

A community police group patrols on foot near Marquelia, Guerrero.

Community police supervise manual labor by local criminals they have arrested in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico.



Men arrested for dealing drugs are transported to prison by community police in Marquelia, who also check for guns and drugs at the door of a party in Marquelia in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico.

A woman waits outside a self-defense public meeting in Tierra Colorado, Guerrero.




Secundino Rubio Peralta and Margarita del Carmen Villegas hold a photograph of their son, Bonfilio Rubio, who was murdered by a stray bullet shot by Mexican soldiers at a checkpoint in the Montana region of Guerrero.



Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the author of Home Girl (2008) and Fragments of a Forgotten War (1997).

Katie Orlinsky is a photographer and contributor to Reportage by Getty Images and regularly works for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, and a variety of international magazines.

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