MEXICO CITY — Armed vigilantes in southern Mexico engaged in a shootout Wednesday with a group of men they described as criminals, killing one in what appeared to be the first death related to the month-and-a-half-old "self-defense" movement.
The confrontation near the town of Ayutla raised the stakes in a growing movement that has seen residents of several towns arm themselves with a motley assortment of old hunting rifles, shotguns and pistols while conducting patrols and manning checkpoints to fight crime spawned by drug cartels.
Bruno Placido, leader of the vigilante movement in the southern state of Guerrero, said one of the civilian patrols caught sight of a group of armed men, who opened fire on the patrol.
"There was one killed on the side of the criminals," he said.
The masked vigilantes frequently stop passing motorists to search for weapons or people whose names are on hand-written lists of "suspects" wanted for crimes like theft and extortion.
The vigilantes have opened fire before on motorists who refused to stop, slightly wounding a pair of tourists from Mexico City visiting a local beach in early February.
The shootout Wednesday came one day after the vigilantes freed the last of 42 people detained on suspicion of crimes ranging from theft to extortion and murder, a move that authorities had hoped spelled the beginning of a new, more regulated phase for the "self-defense" groups.
The Guerrero state government said the vigilantes turned 20 of the final detainees over to police. It said the other 22 had been suspected of lesser offenses and were released Tuesday because the vigilantes considered they had been sufficiently punished.
"The state government foresees that the release of these detainees closes a chapter, and sets things on the road to institutionalizing and regulating community police forces," the state government said in a statement.
Placido, the vigilantes' leader, confirmed that some prisoners had been turned over.
State officials hope the vigilantes can be persuaded to join already-established "community police" forces that operate in some Guerrero towns, where unmasked residents with some training and minimal uniforms, usually printed T-shirts, perform routine patrols and turn over suspects to town assemblies. Following local custom, those assemblies try the suspects and can impose some sentences.
The recently formed "self-defense" groups, however, have none of those trappings. They consist of men wearing ski masks and bandanas over their faces while manning the improvised highway checkpoints and patrolling rural areas.
Residents tired of rampant crime set up the roadblocks in early January and detained about 53 people. They held the detainees at improvised jails in villages around Ayutla, in some cases for more than 1 1/2 months. They released the first 11 detainees in early February.
While local media have reported that self-defense groups have spread to 36 communities in eight states, that may exaggerate their numbers. For example, assistants to the mayors of two towns in the State of Mexico, next to Mexico City, where self-defense groups had reportedly formed, denied that any vigilante committees existed in their towns.
But "self-defense" represents an attractive option for some rural towns in Guerrero and neighboring states like Michoacan and Morelos. Because official forces are woefully inadequate and often corrupt, vigilante groups can press to have their members hired by local governments as backup security forces.
Even in some of the rougher neighborhoods on Mexico City's eastern outskirts, improvised block committees have formed to fight crimes like burglaries and muggings.
"No More Robberies! If We Catch You, We Will Lynch You!" reads one banner that a local block committee hung across the street in the town of Texcoco, east of the capital. A local resident who works at a car wash said residents organized the block committee, called "Vigilant Neighbor Committee," about two years ago in the face of frequent home robberies.
Residents ring local church bells to alert each other if they see a crime in progress. The man said they had caught thieves but hadn't lynched any. "The police usually come to pick them up before anything can happen," said the car-wash employee, who did not give his name for fear of reprisals.
"Before, they would just come into your house to steal, and you would say, `Sure, take whatever you want,'" said the man. "But nowadays, they beat your family, they start attacking your family."
Eduardo Gallo, a prominent anti-crime activist, said the armed community groups pose the danger of becoming vengeful mobs, "but that is what the citizenry is being forced into when they don't have any public safety."
Gallo said the "self-defense" groups are likely to hang on, and perhaps grow, if authorities don't guarantee public safety in the wave of drug cartel violence and common crime.
Police reform has a long way to go in Mexico, with only about half of the country's police officers vetted and subjected to background checks.
"I think we are going to see the self-defense phenomenon grow a bit more, and even see them turn into revenge groups, until this hits bottom and the government begins to change its attitude," Gallo said.