Mexican Vigilantes Release Dozens of Captives

PHOTO: Hooded men stand guard while passing detainees to the Government of the State of Guerrero by the communitarian police at the central square of Ayutla de los Libres, on Febrary 8, 2013. On Tuesday, a final batch of 39 detainees was released.Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images
Hooded members of a self defense group stand guard while passing detainees to the Government of the State of Guerrero at the central square of Ayutla de los Libres, on Febrary 8, 2013. On Tuesday Feb 18, a final batch of 39 detainees was released.

Vigilantes in the town of Ayutla in the southwestern state of Guerrero released 39 captives in the early hours of Tuesday, after facing great pressure from state authorities.

Bruno Placido, leader of the Union of People and Organizations of Guerrero, said that amongst the 39 captives held, 20 were handed over to state authorities while the rest of the detainees were sent back to their hometowns.

Out of frustration with government security forces unable to protect them, hundreds of civilians in rural areas of Guerrero state started taking up arms in January to provide security for their villages.

Since the end of last year, 36 self-defense groups have been formed in 8 different states across the country, according to a tally made by local newspaper Milenio. Guerrero state is leading the way with 20 self-defense squads.

In Ayutla, hooded men armed with old rifles have set up roadblocks since early January. They also arrested 54 alleged criminals with supposed links to drug trafficking gangs, holding them in a local warehouse for weeks, and threatened to try them in a people's court.

In early February, 15 detainees were released, while another 39 remained imprisoned. Though all of the detainees have now been released, the vigilante movement in Ayutla said that it won't lay down its weapons yet. Instead, Placido said his group will continue to man checkpoints outside Ayutla, and will negotiate formal recognition with state and federal authorities.

While self-defense groups in Guerrero and elsewhere in the Mexico have been applauded by local residents, state and federal officials have had a more ambiguous stance towards these groups, promising at times to supply them with uniforms, but trying to convince them to lay down their weapons on other occasions.

Drug violence has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives in Mexico over the past six years. But security experts and human rights activists are also wary that groups that are taking justice into their own hands, will spawn further security problems for this country of 110 million people.

"This is a sign that the state has been overwhelmed [by security issues]," said Javier Sicilia, a poet and advocate for victim's rights, in recent declarations to the Mexican press.

"But this is a dangerous trend, because groups whose intent is not really self defence can also pick up weapons…We need to tend to this emergency and work together to solve it," Sicilia said.