The suspect was hauled before a tense crowd in this mountain village of southwestern Mexico, and told he would be tried by a popular tribunal. His alleged crime: murder and dismemberment.
He was among 47 men, two minors and four women detained by masked vigilante squads formed in early January by farmers tired of the police’s failure to stop crime in their Guerrero state communities.
Hundreds of people have grabbed hunting rifles and machetes in several communities since the movement began in the municipality of Ayutla de los Libres on January 6, patrolling their streets and taking prisoners.
On Thursday, they opened a popular tribunal in the main square of the village of El Meson, without the presence of any authorities, which have not sanctioned the people’s court. The trials are due to start later this month.
“The authorities have not delivered, so the people have re-established the rule of law,” said Mario Campos Hernandez, a priest who works with the indigenous communities.
While hundreds of armed and masked vigilantes kept guard, relatives of the prisoners, crime victims and residents of El Meson listened attentively as the accused were introduced and various charges were listed — links to gangs, murder, kidnapping, extortion and drug dealing.
The detainees include several relatives of a man nicknamed “El Cholo,” the head of a criminal cell operating in Ayutla, a town of 13,000 people.
Some victims recounted their dealings with the prisoners.
One witness as young as 12 testified that the head of a crime group was training him to become a hitman.
“I saw how he tortured people, how he killed them, how he dismembered people,” said the boy, whose face was covered.
It was the January 5 kidnapping of Eusebio Alberto Garcia, a community leader in the village of Rancho Nuevo, that inspired civilians to form self-defense groups. He was freed by the vigilantes a day later.
He told the crowd that he was kidnapped because he had urged his village’s cattle farmers to stop making the regular payments demanded by organized crime groups.
“You go counsel people to not pay a fee. They don’t want to pay 500 pesos ($39), now they’ll pay more,” he recalled his captors as saying
Local people say their towns are much safer since the vigilante squads started patrols and checkpoints.
A 31-year-old corn farmer who now acts as the bodyguard of a self-defense squad commander said the criminals would leave anonymous message warning people: “We will kill those who walk the streets at night.”
“Things are calmer now,” said Monserrat Martinez, a 19-year-old beautician school student, as she ate ice cream at a local shop. “Before, you wouldn’t see anybody on the street. The night belonged to them (the criminals).”
The vigilantes say they want to try the suspects under their “traditions and customs,” a form of justice that exists in other parts of Guerrero, with sentences including years of forced labor.
The tribunal was formed event though the state prosecutor’s office says the self-defense groups do not have the authority to judge and sentence people. Relatives of the detainees have filed complaints.
“They are not governed by rules and they could face claims of illegality,” Ayutla Mayor Severo Castro said, but he added that the town has “remained in peace.”