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El Meson, Mexico -
Seven detainees sat stone-faced in a small, dark and windowless cell inside a pink building serving as a makeshift jail in the southwestern Mexican village of El Meson.
Vigilante justice is at work in Mexico.
In a larger room with only two tables, 16 more men sat or lay still on pieces of cardboard or carpet on the concrete floor. All were shoeless, most shirtless. One had a black eye.
Along one wall, four fidgety women sat on plastic buckets. Only a creaking fan broke the silence and heat.
Outside, around 25 corn and cattle farmers kept guard in a roofed courtyard, wearing masks and carrying hunting rifles. At a table, a hooded man took notes as people gave statements against the suspects.
Fed up with the police's inability or unwillingness to stop soaring crime, civilians have grabbed rifles and machetes in the mountains of Guerrero state in January to fight back ruthless gangs.
It is the latest self-policing movement to emerge in violence-struck Mexico, after similar cases in the states of Michoacan and Chihuahua in the past four years.
Covering their faces with bandanas or ski masks, hundreds of indigenous residents - some as young as 14 - patrol streets, man checkpoints and arrest people from handwritten lists of suspects.
“We had no other choice,” said a 25-year-old father of three who manned an evening checkpoint in the town of Tecoanapa last Thursday with around 30 men. “We want to live and sleep in peace.”
As a grateful older couple and their son brought coffee and bread for the men, he said the residents rose up due to the “ineptitude of the municipal, state and federal governments.”
They stopped trucks and cars, demanding identification. They told most drivers “sorry for the bother,” though one taxi driver was shoved against the hood after failing to obey an order.
El Meson, which is part of the municipality of Ayutla de los Libres, is holding 27 of at least 44 alleged murderers, kidnappers and extortionists, and they may now facing popular justice.
“We will completely clean up Ayutla,” said a 28-year-old self-styled “regional commander” armed with a 9mm handgun, who refused to give his name.
“The people would like to see them dead, but we are humanitarians,” he said through his black ski mask. “We will put them on trial with our customs and traditions. They will repay their debt to society.”
The village of El Meson allowed a small group of journalists to visit the detainees on Friday, but only after the community held a vote.
Outside another village near El Meson holding more suspects, around 200 people stood at the town entrance holding sticks and machetes, preventing journalists from seeing the detainees.
“They are not mistreated. They eat beans, eggs, chicken, tortillas. They are fatter than we are,” said a 50-year-old mother of four wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with a crucified Jesus.
“They deserve to be punished,” she said. “Today, things are calmer.”
The kidnapping of a local leader in Ayutla on January 5 was the last straw for a population that had lived in fear for years. They rescued their comrade in an operation that allegedly left a taxi driver dead.
The communities want to put the 44 detainees before a popular tribunal as early as this week, with local leaders chosen by the people to hand down sentences that could include years of forced labor in various towns.
Such forms of justice already exist in a dozen Guerrero municipalities that have a “community police,” a force recognised by the state that has existed for 17 years.
Although Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the new movements were “on the fringes of the law,” he said he understood them and the government has not stopped them.
The army and state police took control of some checkpoints this past week, but the encapuchados - “hooded ones” - are still far more numerous and patrol the streets on foot and in pick up trucks.
But there are risks of abuse. The state prosecutor's office is investigating the alleged killing Tuesday of a 30-year-old suspect at a checkpoint manned by a vigilante force in the town of Atliaca.
Governor Angel Aguirre Rivero indicated that he wanted the new movements to join the established community police.
The president of the Guerrero State Human Rights Commission, Juan Alarcon Hernandez, told AFP that the detentions are illegal but that the best way forward is dialogue to find a solution to the fate of detainees.
The self-defense forces allowed Alarcon to briefly see 39 of the detainees last Thursday. They refuse to hand the suspects to the authorities.
“It would be a contradiction to hand the detainees to the authorities. They would be judged by a corrupt system,” said Vidulfo Rosales Sierra, a lawyer at a local human rights group in Ayutla.
Mexicans are exasperated with their ineffective judicial system. Only one percent of crimes in Mexico end up with a conviction in a country that has chalked up 70 000 drug-related murders since 2006.
Many towns now see self-policing as their best hope against criminals who roam the streets with guns, harass women and extort businesses.
“We were afraid of going outside at night,” said Marlen Chavez, 29, who was holding her sleeping three-year-old daughter after 400 people voted at a town meeting Thursday night to continue a 10.00pm curfew in Tecoanapa.
“Now we are safer.” - Sapa-AFP