Mexico’s weak rule of law was on full display in the southern state of Guerrero this week when local government authorities allegedly helped broker a hostage exchange between a vigilante group and a drug gang.
The incident started last Sunday, when a local vigilante leader known as "The Engineer" was abducted by a drug gang in the town of San Miguel Totolapan. The vigilante group sought revenge by kidnapping the mother of the drug kingpin, known as El Tequilero (The Tequila Maker), along with additional hostages accused of acting in cahoots with his gang.
The vigilante group then taped a video message of the kingpin’s mother pleading with her drug boss son to release The Engineer in exchange for her own freedom. The video was given to local journalists and published on Mexican social media.
“Look… son, if you have The Engineer please release him… if you have him I trust that you’ll release him… please do it,” the elderly woman says in her video message.
The vigilante group also helped The Engineer's wife publish a video message on Facebook where she taunts the drug boss and urges local authorities to do something.
“We have his mother… I’m asking for an exchange for my husband’s life. I will give him his mother… but I want him safe and sound,” the woman says in the video.
The hostage exchange reportedly took two days to negotiate. The vigilante leader was finally released on Wednesday night and was greeted by the armed civilians as he embraced his crying family members.
In exchange, the vigilantes handed over the drug kingpin’s mother to state police. They shouted insults at her and the cops as the woman was put into a squad car.
"El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" (The people united will never be defeated!), they chanted.
The governor of Guerrero told reporters the state acted as a “mediator” between the two outlaw groups.
The incident is further evidence of how vigilante groups have essentially become de facto authorities in some towns in southern Mexico. The vigilantes continue fighting drug cartels by spreading their own propaganda on social media and mimicking criminal tactics including kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings.
Instead of working to improve rule of law by strengthening institutions, the government has opted to send more soldiers into the disputed areas while incorporating some of the self-defense groups to official police units.
But some vigilante groups in Guerrero and Michoacán have evolved into mini-cartels in their own right, becoming the same type of monster they were born to fight.