Mexico City – In a dramatic and violent escalation of a situation that has plagued Mexican authorities since February, vigilantes attacked local police officers in the southern state of Guerrero, beat them with rifle butts and machetes and handcuffed them, then stole their rifles and briefly kidnapped some municipal officials, authorities said.
The clash on Monday in Tixtla highlighted the confusion and contradictions in the Mexican government's effort to deal with "self-defense groups" that have sprung up in parts of southern Mexico since February to fight drug cartels.
Some vigilantes openly carry weapons and periodically scuffle with police and soldiers, but the most truculent of them have not been arrested even while dozens of members of smaller, more isolated self-defense groups have been hauled off to jail.
Over the weekend, 21 members of a group in Aquila, a mountain village in the western state of Michoacán, were ordered to stand trial at a maximum security prison on weapons charges, and 19 others face lesser charges.
"This is completely out of proportion, irrational, to have so many communal farmers held at a maximum security prison," the men's lawyer, Leonel Rivero, said Tuesday.
The vigilantes in Tixtla, meanwhile, appear to have got away scot free with several assault rifles after beating the local police officers. Guerrero state authorities said Tuesday there had been no arrests despite the fact the vigilantes kidnapped several officials and wounded the town's police chief with a machete.
Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre has been in talks with community police and vigilante groups seeking to persuade them to register their members and weapons and to not carry arms into other towns. "The framework set up for these talks have been violated by these violent acts" in Tixtla, Aguirre said.
The government is having a hard time deciding which vigilantes to arrest and which to tolerate, given that some of the groups have been resisting drug cartel extortion while critics say some groups are involved in criminal activity themselves.
In Aquila, for instance, two residents said the self-defense group members arrested there were fighting against the Knight Templar, which had been forcing townspeople to pay 700,000 pesos a month, about $53,000, from mining royalties they received. Michoacán state authorities, however, contend the vigilante group really has been in a dispute over the royalties with other townspeople.
In another Michoacán town, La Ruana, about 40 vigilantes are still jailed after being arrested several months ago because authorities claimed they had links to a drug cartel.
Yet in other towns, federal police and soldiers coexist with armed self-defense groups.
"I think every case is different, and I think the government doesn't have a very clear idea of the situation, and I think that is why they are acting so slowly," said Javier Oliva, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Authorities have little option but to try to work with the groups. With police and soldiers proving unable to root out drug cartels that terrorize villagers and extort money from them, many people think the appearance of vigilantes has been a needed return to older forms of local police and self-policing.
The Guerrero state government has agreed to provide training, pay and some form of official recognition for old-style community police groups, which are independent, village-run guards who have been patrolling remote areas of the state with single-shot rifles since 1997. They handle minor crimes, hold people briefly in improvised jails and often mete out community service as punishment.
The federal government announced Tuesday it will delay the deployment of 5,000 rural civilian police, to be trained by the army and called "gendarmes," until next year. Deputy Interior Secretary Manuel Mondragon said in February that 10,000 officers would be deployed by the end of the year.
Oliva said the gendarme plan is hazy. He said the government would do better to revive "rural defense guards," squads of civilian volunteers that have served under army discipline for almost a century.
"This already exists in the legal framework; you don't have to make any changes. It would be better," Oliva said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.