Militia members in Cuautepec, Guerrero, where they gathered to take an oath to defend their communities against organized crime. Photos by Carlos Alvarez Montero.
On January 5 in El Potrero, a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a man named Eusebio García Alvarado was kidnapped by a local criminal syndicate. Kidnappings are fairly common in Guerrero—the state, just south of Mexico City, is one of the poorest in the country and the site of some of the worst violence in the ongoing battle between the drug cartels and Mexican authorities. Guerrero’s largest city, Acapulco, is known to Americans as a tourist hot spot. It’s also currently the second most dangerous city in the world, according to a study released by a Mexican think tank in February.
Eusebio’s kidnapping, though, was exceptional. He served as the town commissioner of Rancho Nuevo and was a member of the community activist organization Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), and the brazenness the criminals showed in snatching him up pissed off his neighbors so much that they took matters into their own hands.
Gonzalo Torres, also known as G-1, the leader of the UPOEG militia in Ayulta.
The day after Eusebio was abducted, hundreds of people from the nearby towns of Ayutla de los Libres and Tecoanapa decided that they could do a better job policing their communities than the local authorities. They grabbed whatever weapons they had—mostly hunting rifles and shotguns—set up checkpoints at entrances to their villages, and patrolled the roads in pickup trucks, often hiding their faces with ski masks and bandanas. Overnight, UPOEG transformed from an organization of advocates for better roads and infrastructure into a group of armed vigilantes operating without the endorsement of any branch of the government. The kidnappers released Eusebio that day, but UPOEG’s checkpoints and patrols didn’t disappear with his return. In fact, there was a groundswell of support. Five municipalities in the surrounding Costa Chica region followed suit and established their own militias. Soon, armed and masked citizens ensured that travelers and strangers weren’t allowed to enter any of their towns uninvited.
These militias captured 54 people whom they alleged to be involved in organized crime (including two minors and four women), imprisoning them inside a house that became an improvised jail. On January 31, the communities gathered on an outdoor basketball court in the village of El Meson to publicly try their detainees. The charges ran the gamut from kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and homicide to smoking weed. More than 500 people attended, and the trial was covered by media outlets all over the world.
A couple vigilantes take a break during their night patrol.
This uprising of the citizenry complicated relations with the authorities who were assigned to govern and police these villages. Initially, the state’s governor, Ángel Aguirre, praised the militias and even said that the law gave villagers the right to rule themselves. However, his position shifted quickly thereafter, and he publicly declared that no one had the right to take justice into their own hands. Following intense negotiations between UPOEG and the government, the prisoners were surrendered to the state police in February. But the villagers had no intentions of handing over their guns.
Federal and Guerrero state laws give indigenous groups some authority to govern themselves, and the militias are mostly composed of indigenous people, so there’s legal precedent for what’s happening in Costa Chica. Francisco Lopez Bárcenas, a renowned lawyer who’s a member of Oaxaca’s indigenous Mixteco people and has documented these sorts of rebellions in Mexico for decades, told us that while these communities have policed themselves for centuries, the “self-defense groups” that have formed in Guerrero and elsewhere are a different beast.
“The community police are groups that are part of the inherent structure of the towns and villages, and are legitimized by the rights of indigenous people,” Francisco said. “The self-defense groups are formed by the groups’ own initiative to defend the people, but they are not part of the towns’ social structures, so they aren’t truly accountable to the communities. That’s why they don’t have the same legitimacy. Also, self-defense groups don’t necessarily have be a part of indigenous communities—they could be farmers, or [they could form] in the cities, wherever a particular group feels threatened.”
A UPOEG member in pursuit of a criminal in the mountains near Ayulta.
Costa Chica isn’t the only region where citizens have taken the law into their own hands. Many Mexicans don’t have faith in the government’s ability or willingness to curb organized crime (only 2 percent of crimes committed in the country result in convictions), and in the first quarter of the year, self-defense groups sprouted up in Jalisco, Chiapas, Michoacán, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and the State of Mexico. While driving to Guerrero to see what was going on there, we overheard on the radio that yet more of these militias had formed in Coyuca and Acapulco. The movement seems to be spreading from the rural areas to cities.
On arriving at the checkpoint outside Ayutla, a town of 13,000 and a vigilante stronghold, we noticed that the masked villagers with shotguns had been replaced by heavily armed soldiers from the Mexican Army. The government, we soon learned, had come to an agreement with the militias: they could operate within the town, but the army would take over the federal highway checkpoints.
Once in town we had arranged to meet Gonzalo Torres, also known as G-1, the militia commander in charge of the Ayutla post. He’s a big, friendly man in his 50s who wore a plaid shirt and a glittery baseball cap when we spoke with him at the militia’s improvised control point—basically a cluttered table set up on a sidewalk outside a furniture store and across the street from a large supermarket. It was around noon on Saturday, and Gonzalo was talking to a young woman asking him for help with her husband, who was drunk and throwing shit around their house. He told his deputies to check it out, and his men walked toward the woman’s house, donning ski masks and cowboy hats. Shortly after, another woman showed up and thanked them for their good deeds with orange juice and food.
A UPOEG member with a particularly stylish bandana.
“We’ve been here for a month and 18 days and that speaks for itself,” Gonzalo said. “Since we started, there hasn’t been a single kidnapping, murder, or rape. There are no extortions, and no one is charging money for protection. These are the results we are getting.”
Gonzalo explained that they had set up community police groups in many towns that now controlled 95 percent of the communities in the Ayutla municipality. Their jurisdiction spreads across Tecoanapa and the municipalities of San Marcos, Cruz Grande, Copala, and Cuautepec. “This is growing,” he said. “Every day more towns are joining this community system.”
Over the next few days, we shadowed vigilantes on their patrols. One night, we drove along roads in total darkness, stopping at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere, where 20 masked men were stopping cars to search them and ID their drivers. The head officer told us they don’t carry flashlights so that they can surprise the drivers; we imagined tourists traveling along these roads and panicking in terror after suddenly running into a band of masked, armed men.
When we asked Daniel, the vigilante who served as our guide, whether most locals are aware that militias and not criminals are manning these checkpoints, he replied, “People around these parts know.” But not everyone knows—on February 3, two tourists from Mexico City were on their way to the beach town of Playa Ventura when they failed to stop at a checkpoint and were subsequently attacked by the vigilantes. The tourists were taken to a nearby hospital and later filed a lawsuit against the militia members. The leadership of UPOEG said it was the tourists’ fault because they didn’t stop their car.
A masked guard standing outside of a UPOEG-controlled house.
Militia members don’t wear badges or use warrants, so there is room to criticize them for operating outside the reasonable bounds of the law. When we brought this point up with Gonzalo, he replied, “They say that we are acting outside of the law, but Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution says that the power emanates from the people, and its purpose is to help the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government. I believe that at this moment, the people were so fed up that this was necessary… The institutions in charge of preventing crime have not done their work, and the people of this state are totally neglected. The situation reached a point where it was impossible to put up with the abuses of the organized crime, who are also in cahoots with the authorities, and everybody knows that.”
Ayulta’s mayor, Severo Castro Gomez of the Green Party, seems to like what the militias have done. “Isn’t it a beautiful thing?” he asked us when we visited him at his office. “What I see happening is the people defending their own people.”
Militia members don’t receive any pay and are supposed to participate in one patrol a week. Some of them chase criminals while armed only with machetes and small-caliber handguns, and you have to admire their bravery. There are rumors that the UPOEG has been forcing people to join the militias, but their leaders have denied it. There are also rumors that the vigilantes have imprisoned suspected criminals themselves rather than turning them over to the police. We tagged along with the militias during a couple of operations where they chased accused drug dealers, but they failed to capture them. They assured us that if they had caught them, they would have turned them in to the authorities, but we didn’t have a chance to witness such a handoff.
The state of Guerrero, which translates to “Warrior” state in English, was named after Mexican national hero Vicente Guerrero. The region has a long history of incubating armed groups, dating back to before the Mexican Revolution, when groups of workers fought against President Porfirio Díaz’s troops. The EPR, a violent leftist group, emerged there in the 1990s.
A masked and armed young man near UPOEG headquarters in Ayulta, Mexico. (Not pictured: his Toy Story backpack.)
Guerrero is also at the forefront of establishing volunteer police forces in indigenous communities. In 1995, an organization called Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) was founded in San Luis Acatlán as a response to a wave of violent crime. Today, the all-volunteer CRAC force is recognized and supported by the government of Guerrero. We visited their headquarters in San Luis Acatlán and met with Pablo Guzmán Hernández, a regional coordinator who told us that since CRAC was founded, crime in the 72 indigenous communities in the area where the community police operate has gone down 90 percent. Pablo said that the reason nontraditional police forces are so effective is because “their officers belong to the communities, and they know their surroundings, the terrain, and the people.” CRAC’s officers aren’t masked, unlike the new self-defense groups, and officers’ T-shirts and their vehicles are clearly marked with the organization’s logo. They dispense justice while working to reeducate criminals—prisoners are assigned community service and are only confined to their cells at night. While this system seems to work well on the surface, the reality is that those accused of crimes don’t necessarily get fair trials by legal standards and are often not even informed of how long they’ll be in jail. On the other hand, the Mexican judicial system is so fucked up that it’s hard to say CRAC’s and UPOEG’s brand of justice is any worse.
The two groups are linked by Bruno Plácido Valerio, who co-founded CRAC and helped start UPOEG just over two years ago, back when it was an unarmed organization. The reasons UPOEG began actively patrolling communities with masks and guns are unclear. Some say that CRAC wasn’t doing enough to stop organized crime, so UPOEG stepped it up; others believe that UPOEG’s aggressive tactics have ulterior motives and are meant to weaken CRAC politically, or that Bruno is seeking publicity for personal and political gain. While all of this might be hearsay, it’s clear that Bruno has closer ties with the Guerrero government than CRAC and that this has exacerbated tensions between the two groups.
We met Bruno in the coastal town of Marquelia, where he had traveled to meet with some community leaders interested in starting a local police group. He had just come from Mexico City, where he conferred with legislators, after visiting Governor Aguirre in the state capital of Chilpancingo.
Bruno said that UPOEG wants to be legitimized as a national community-police organization and not just a self-defense group. He added that his organization has a presence in 40 of the 82 municipalities in the state, though official statistics to independently verify this claim have proven difficult to track down.
A UPOEG member in Ayulta shows the camera where he keeps his gun.
“We operate more quickly and efficiently than the police,” Bruno said. “We don’t even need the help of the CIA or the DEA. There’s a saying that goes, ‘For a wedge to be tight, it has to be from the same wood.’ The people that operate in our communities know each other, the good and the bad ones. We know what our neighbors do.”
We asked Bruno if UPOEG was in any way financially backed by the government, or if he had ambitions to run for office. “Our movement’s only goal is to bring peace and security to the people,” he replied. “There’s nothing behind us; there are no drug traffickers behind us, and there’s not a bigger political agenda. It’s a well-intentioned movement. We criticize the government, but we are not against it. We are against the public policies that the people who govern us enact.”
Although the true motivations of the UPOEG’s leadership remain somewhat ambiguous, its members’ goals are much simpler: they wish to curtail the violence, kidnappings, and distrust for the police in their communities. Indigenous peoples throughout Mexico live in almost-unbearable poverty, and this, combined with the government’s seeming inability or unwillingness to crack down on organized crime, has provoked an unprecedented grassroots vigilante movement. These communities have had many valid reasons to take up arms against criminal gangs for a long time—in fact, it may be their only clear path to salvation. And if the government wants them to stand down, they will need to provide the solutions and conditions necessary for them to take off their masks and put down their guns.