MEXICO CITY (AP) — Officials in southern Mexico say armed vigilantes have freed the last of 42 people detained by townspeople on suspicion of crimes ranging from theft to extortion and murder, marking what authorities hope will be an end to the growth of unregulated community “self-defense” groups.
However, activists said Wednesday that vigilante groups are likely to hang on, and perhaps grow, if authorities don’t guarantee public safety in the wave of drug cartel violence and common crime.
The government of the Pacific coast state of Guerrero said the vigilantes based in the town of Ayutla turned 20 of the final detainees over to police. It said the other 22 had been suspected of lesser offenses and were released Tuesday because the vigilantes considered they had been sufficiently punished.
“The state government foresees that the release of these detainees closes a chapter, and sets things on the road to institutionalizing and regulating community police forces,” the state government said in a statement.
The vigilantes’ leader did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
State officials hope the vigilantes can be persuaded to join already-established “community police” forces that operate in some Guerrero towns, where residents with some training and minimal uniforms, usually printed T-shirts, perform routine patrols and turn over suspects to town assemblies. Following local custom, those assemblies try the suspects and can impose some sentences.
The recently formed “self-defense” groups, however, have none of those trappings. They consist of men wearing ski masks and bandanas who set up highway checkpoints and interrogate passing motorists. They carry an odd assortment of old hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols, and have shot at motorists who refused to stop.
Residents tired of rampant crime set up roadblocks in early January and detained about 53 people. They held the detainees at improvised jails in villages around Ayutla, in some cases for more than 1½ months. They released the first 11 detainees in early February.
While local media have reported that self-defense groups have spread to 36 communities in eight states, that appears to exaggerate their numbers. For example, assistants to the mayors of two towns in the State of Mexico, next to Mexico City, where self-defense groups had reportedly formed, denied that any vigilante committees existed in their towns.
But “self-defense” represents an attractive option for some rural towns. Because official forces are woefully inadequate and often corrupt, vigilante groups can press to have their members hired by local governments as backup security forces.
Even in some of the rougher neighborhoods on Mexico City’s eastern outskirts, improvised block committees have formed to fight crimes like burglaries and muggings.
“No More Robberies! If We Catch You, We Will Lynch You!” reads one banner that a local block committee hung across the street in the town of Texcoco, east of the capital. A local resident who works at a car wash said residents organized the block committee, called “Vigilant Neighbor Committee,” about two years ago in the face of frequent home robberies.
Residents ring local church bells to alert each other if they see a crime in progress. The man said they had caught thieves but hadn’t lynched any. “The police usually come to pick them up before anything can happen,” said the car-wash employee, who did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
“Before, they would just come into your house to steal, and you would say, ‘Sure, take whatever you want,’” said the man. “But nowadays, they beat your family, they start attacking your family.”
Eduardo Gallo, a prominent anti-crime activist, said self-defense groups pose the danger of becoming vengeful mobs, “but that is what the citizenry is being forced into when they don’t have any public safety.”
Police reform has a long way to go in Mexico, with only about half of the country’s police officers vetted and subjected to background checks.
“I think we are going to see the self-defense phenomenon grow a bit more, and even see them turn into revenge groups, until this hits bottom and the government begins to change its attitude,” Gallo said.
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