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In Mexico, self-defense squads battle violence

Monday - 1/21/2013, 3:08pm  ET

In this photo taken Friday Jan. 18, 2013, masked and armed men sit in the back of a pick-up truck at the entrance to the town of Ayutla, Mexico. Hundreds of men in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero have taken up arms to defend their villages against drug gangs, a vigilante movement born of frustration at extortion, killings and kidnappings in a region wracked by violence. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

MARK STEVENSON
Associated Press

AYUTLA, Mexico (AP) -- The young man at the roadside checkpoint wept softly behind the red bandanna that masked his face. At his side was a relic revolver, and his feet were shod in the muddy, broken boots of a farmer.

Haltingly, he told how his cousin's body was found in a mass grave with about 40 other victims of a drug gang. Apparently, the cousin had caught a ride with an off-duty soldier and when gunmen stopped the vehicle, they killed everyone on the car.

"There isn't one of us who hasn't felt the pain ... of seeing them take a family member and not being able to ever get them back," said the young civilian self-defense patrol member, who identified himself as "just another representative of the people of the mountain."

Now he has joined hundreds of other men in the southern Mexico state of Guerrero who have taken up arms to defend their villages against drug gangs, a vigilante movement born of frustration at extortion, killings and kidnappings that local police are unable, or unwilling, to stop.

Vigilantes patrol a dozen or more towns in rural Mexico, the unauthorized but often tolerated edge of a growing movement toward armed citizen self-defense squads across the country.

"The situation Mexico is experiencing, the crime, is what has given the communities the legitimacy to say, 'We will assume the tasks that the government has not been able to fulfill,'" said rights activist Roman Hernandez, whose group Tlachinollan has worked with the community forces.

The young man and his masked cohorts stop cars at a checkpoint along the two-lane highway that runs past mango and palm trees to Ayutla, a dusty, sun-struck town of concrete homes with red-tile roofs. Pigs, chickens and skinny dogs root in the dirt while the mountains of the Pacific Coast range loom above.

The men wear fading t-shirts, leather sandals and most are armed with old hunting rifles or ancient 20-gauge shotguns hanging from their shoulders on twine slings as they stop cars and check the IDs of passing drivers.

The reach of drug gangs based in Acapulco, about 45 miles (75 kilometers) away, had intensified to the point that they were demanding protection payments from almost anybody with any property: truck and bus drivers, cattle ranchers, store owners. In a region where farmworkers make less than $6 per day, the situation grew intolerable for everyone.

"When they extorted money from the rancher, he raised the price of beef, and the store owner raised the price of tortillas," said a short, stocky defense-patrol commander who wore a brown ski mask and a black leather jacket. Because the patrols are not formally recognized by the courts, the law or the government -- and they fear drug cartel reprisals -- most members wear masks and refuse to give their full names.

An example of the danger came in late July when the city's official police chief was found shot to death on the edge of town.

It was another attack by criminals that sparked the movement in Ayutla: In early January, gang members kidnapped a commander of an existing community police force in a nearby town.

"Maybe they wanted to intimidate us, but it backfired. They just awakened the people," said one of the older vigilantes, a straw-hatted man without a gun.

Since then, the upstart self-defense movement has spread to other towns and villages such as Las Mesas and El Pericon. On a recent day, Associated Press journalists saw 200 to 300 masked, armed men patrolling, manning checkpoints and moving around in squad-size contingents. Some had only machetes, but most had old single-shot, bolt-action rifles.

Waving guns, they stop each vehicle, and ask for driver's licenses or voter IDs, which they check against a handwritten list of "los malos," or "the bad guys." They sometimes search vehicles and frisk the drivers.

The commander of the Las Mesas vigilantes explains their motives. "We are not against those who are distributing drugs. That's a way for them to earn a living. Let anyone who wants to poison themselves with drugs do it. What we are against is them messing with the local people."

The movement so far seems to be well-accepted by local residents fed up with crime that plagued this stretch of mountain highway.

"In less than a month, they have done something that the army and state and federal police haven't been able to do in years," said local resident Lorena Morales Castro, who waited in a line of cars at a checkpoint Friday. "They are our anonymous heroes."

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