AYUTLA - In the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, residents of about 15 municipalities have decided to form a “community police” to confront the drug cartels.
“The state," says one farmer matter-of-factly, "has abandoned us."
A commander of the group, who goes by the moniker G1, is talking in the parking lot of the Aurrera supermarket in the town of Ayutla, where the community police have installed their improvised headquarters. He wears a balaclava, and holds a gun. “When we rise against the narcos (drug cartels), they say they will go after us and our families -- so I said, ‘let them come. I will be still waiting for them here,"" he declares. "It is not right for just a few of them to keep us all in fear. We outnumber them.”
As he stops talking, a woman brings a large casserole with rice and beans to feed the group. To get to Ayutla, in the heart of Guerrero’s Costa Chica, one of the poorest regions in Mexico, you need to pass through at least 12 roadblocks: police checkpoints, army checkpoints and community police checkpoints, each asking to see IDs and check out every vehicle. No one protests.
A month ago, locals got tired of the violence, and decided to take control. Groups of men armed with old shotguns took to the streets, the highways and the roads. First it was one, then another, and then one more… all together, 15 towns have raised vigilante forces that neither obey police, army nor any authority that is not from their own communities.
A teenage couple walks past the encapuchados (men with balaclavas), hand in hand. “You see? This was impossible before. We were afraid to leave our houses after 10 p.m.,” says commander G1.
“The state had abandoned us and we had to do something to defend ourselves. Even a scorpion, when you are step on it, sticks out its zinger to defend itself,” says a former corn farmer who now leads one of the self-defense groups.
The situation in Ayutla is a mirror of what is happening in the rest of the country, where the war among and against the drug cartels has left 90,000 thousand dead and 25,000 missing.
But for a month, crime rates in Ayutla have been reduced to zero and the government of Enrique Peña Nieto is starting to worry about this popular uprising, which echoes the 1990s, when the Zapatista revolutionary group declared a “war against the Mexican state.”
“Bring them to justice”
It is 11 a.m. and the sun is already blazing. In the nearby town of El Mezon, a public “trial” has began against 54 people that have been arrested and accused of having ties with the drug cartels – and participating in robbery, drug trafficking and rape.
Bruised and in groups of five, the prisoners, which have spent a month incarcerated in the town’s school, are paraded in public while their charges are read out loud. “Uriel Cipriano (36), accused of organized crime; Vicente Mayo (22) works for the cartels; Román Navarrete (28), accused of raping four women…” “Bring them to justice,” shouts the crowd.
Benito steps to the front, and with his face covered, recalls the months he spent working for the drug cartels: “First we cut off their fingers with a knife. Then with a machete, we cut off their feet, hands and arms, and finally the head, which we leave in an ice box in front of their house.” The 12-year-old boy has just described what he did to an old man who didn’t want to pay his kidnapping ransom.
Cowboy jeans, huaraches (sandals), Benito is as poor as his victim, who wasn’t able to pay the standard $50 biweekly extortion fee. These are the going rates in Guerrero, one of the most forgotten regions of Latin America.
The thousands of rough-looking farmers, who came down the mountain armed to the teeth, do not make a sound as they listen to Benito’s story. Popular justice includes listening to the victims’ testimonies. Some of the encapuchados even cry while listening to the story of the little boy who was drafted into the drug cartel. “I live with my grandmother because I have no mother. Well, I do, but she left to work in the U.S. five years ago, and I never heard from her again,” says Benito. His grandmother turned him in to the community police so he could join them and straighten his ways.
A pair of macaws fly over El Mezon, breaking the tense narrative. The farmers hear out loud what they have been suffering through for years: extortions, robberies, rapes, kidnappings, killings… Until they decided they’ve heard enough.