In Mexico a local gang leader’s mother was kidnapped this week, in response to the abduction of a group of young men.  The vigilantes are now proposing a prisoner exchange in order to the free their loved ones.

Mexico has a history of drug related violence and police corruption, with criminals using kidnapping as a steady source of income for years.  Contrary to common perceptions, however, kidnapping in Mexico is not a crime reserved for the wealthy.  Increasingly, Mexico’s working class has been targeted by abductors looking to make a quick buck.  In 2013, 1,698 kidnappings were officially reported in Mexico, with countless more going on without police involvement to record them.

The residents of San Miguel Totolapan, a small village in southern Mexico, decided to take matters into their own hands after what they claim is years of the gang leader, called “El Tequilero,” and his militant group operating with impunity within the region.  El Tequilero, whose real name is Raybel Jacobo de Almonte, has been on the run from law enforcement for weeks now.  A late November effort involving helicopters to search the mountainous area he is said to be hiding out in produced no results.

The townspeople released two videos addressing El Tequilero and his gang.  In the videos, many of the villagers can be seen brandishing rifles and shotguns; some have chosen to wear masks to conceal their identities.

“In return for my husband’s life, I will deliver your mother,” one woman said in the first of two videos.

“We have your mother here, mister known as El Tequilero,” said Yadira Guillermo Garcia in the same video. Her husband, an engineer, was abducted by the gang. “I request an exchange…. I want him safe and sound.”

In a second video, more townspeople explain that they have “suffered for too long” from the violence El Tequilero and his gang have wrought upon the region.

“They have humiliated us, they have killed our families and we won’t let it happen again,” one of the men in masks read to the camera.

The villagers captured a number of men and women whom they claim are tied to mass kidnappings in the region.  Thus far, they have released five, but have kept El Tequilero’s mother among others as their primary bargaining chip.  The local government has dispatched a force of 220 soldiers and police officers to attempt to defuse the situation and see the release of the dozen or so civilians recently kidnapped by the gang commonly referred to as the “tequileros.”  Included in the 220 is a negotiation team tasked with opening lines of communication between the gang and the vigilante group.

“The goal of the team is to ensure that no injury is done to the missing person, nor to the mother of the head of the Tequileros gang, who has apparently been taken by the self-defense forces,” an official statement said.  The village vigilantes are said to have as many as nineteen members of the gang in their custody.

The state government has had to deal with a number of vigilante groups rising up in the region, due in large part to gangs and drug cartels operating seemingly unchecked.  Totolapan, where the recent standoff began, has been nearly abandoned due to the unsafe conditions.  As recent as 2014, the village’s priest, Rev. Ascension Acuna Osorio, was found dead floating in the river that runs alongside the town.  Police sweeps of the region in November uncovered clandestine graves containing the bodies of thirty-two people, as well as the heads of nine opposing gang leaders in coolers.  The camp the bodies were discovered in was said to be intended to hold kidnapping victims and dispose of the bodies of those whose families failed to pay.  Last year, forty-three college students went missing from the region and were later believed to have been killed and incinerated by a local cartel.

At the time, Miguel Vivanco, a director at the American Human Rights Watch, made the following statement regarding the official handling of the investigation into the disappearance of the students: “Even with the world watching and with substantial resources at hand, the authorities proved unable or unwilling to conduct a serious investigation.”

Despite this, the Governor of Guerrero made a statement dismissing the vigilante efforts as impeding progress, rather than making it: “The truth is, they are not really community forces, nor are they police,” Gov. Hector Astudillo said. “They are armed groups that unfortunately carry out acts … that generate more violence and confrontation, rather than help.”

Human rights groups agree, saying these vigilante groups are contributing to the violence rather than limiting it, but in a community that has no reason to believe their law enforcement or government officials will protect them, many see no other option but to band together and protect themselves.  Many of the villagers have grown desperate, unable to afford a ransom demand if one of their loved ones are taken.

With a force of 220 police officers and soldiers expected to arrive today, the world will be watching to see if the government can exercise any kind of control over the situation.  If they fail to assert their authority and bring about a peaceful resolution to this latest kidnapping, it can be expected that even more vigilante groups will begin forming in the region, as more and more locals realize they may be on their own against the drug cartels and gangs roaming southern Mexico.


Image courtesy of the BBC