A look at the rise of vigilantes in the drug-driven landscape of Mexico
Amidst the chaos of the Mexican drug wars, some men seem to have taken Batman as a role model. The only difference between them and the caped crusader, however, is that these guys have guns, and they aren’t afraid to use them.
They are angry about the failure of the government, police and army to control things and keep their families safe. Needless to say, this gun-toting army of every-day-Joes-turned-masked-heroes feel they are having a positive impact on communities. Looking at the horrors that some of these small Mexican towns have endured, it’s easy to see why someone would want to take matters into their own hands. Having faced years of kidnapping, extortion and murder they are now fighting back with guns, roadside checkpoints and town patrols.
Though the federal forces have shown some support towards various militia groups, they have predominantly shown very little love towards the farmers and shop keepers who have taken to forming these vigilante squads. In Trixtla for example, a town that is gateway to the mountain drug kingdoms of the Los Rojas cartel, it is said that the cartel is in fact working in collusion with authorities.
In the nearby town of Olialá, in October 2010, the people took matters into their own hands. Led by 40-year-old Nestora Salgado, the towns folk charged into the police station following the second successive kidnapping of a local driver, after the first was found murdered a few days earlier. The group disarmed the officers and set up barricades to stop any cartel gangsters returning to the town. It was a victory for the vigilantes, and after the events of that day they started to patrol the streets. Sadly their success was short-lived. The army, navy and state police came rolling in to arrest several vigilante officers including their heroine, Salgado, who was locked up in a prison accused of kidnapping. Militia groups in the state of Guerrero have since quietened down but they’re still very much active, just working from the shadows, like all good vigilantes.
On several other occasions, however, vigilante behaviour has gone beyond your everyday patrol. In Veracruz, piles of naked bodies were found dumped in various locations, including a busy highway, on three separate occasions between September and October 2011. The bodies were members of the Zetas, a former branch of the Gulf cartel, now a fully-fledged trafficking cartel in its own right. The militia men, who came to be known as ‘the Zeta killers’, posted a video on YouTube, in which they appeared masked and terrifying looking. They took responsibility for the killings and branded it a “cleansing operation”. “We are anonymous warriors, without faces, proudly Mexican,” one of them told the camera.
The drug wars have been raging since 2006 and these vigilante militias are a third force amidst the chaos. The president of the lower house of congress, Fransisco Arroyo, told Time magazine that, “A state that allows citizens to arm themselves to take justice into their own hands is a failed state.” However, the vigilantes feel that they are having a positive impact. “We have achieved in weeks what police and soldiers could not do in years,” one militia contingent leader told Time. The patrol groups enjoy free drinks and food from shopkeepers, who say that they feel safer when the groups are active. The vigilantes plan to eventually work their way into the slums of Acapulco, and take the fight right to the heart of the cartels – where the violence is at its worse. “We are not scared of the cartels. They have guns but we have guns, too. And we are many,” says Ramon Diaz.
One of the most recent incidents of this ongoing fight happened last weekend when five people were killed after vigilantes marched into the town of Apatzingan in protest against the Knights Templar cartel. Since February the cartel have blocked local towns people from access to the commercial hub in an attempt to choke them into submission. The protest was not well-received and the cartel responded by taking aggressive action. “They attacked us with grenades and with M60 machineguns,” self-defence leader Jose Manuel Mireles said on Monday. The cartels then went on to take down 14 power stations, cutting power to 400,000 people.
It would appear that the cartels still hold the real power in Mexico, but the vigilantes are certainly rattling the cages.
Cover photo: Wikipedia, inset photo: M Glasgow via Flickr