Illegal immigration and the drug trade across America’s southern border obviously played a major role in the 2016 election. The drug cartels have made border towns some of the most dangerous places in the country and kidnappings are commonplace. That sort of violence and corruption is present in towns all across Mexico. The people of the town of Totolapan in southern Mexico have had enough of the abductions and have taken matters into their own hands.
Totolapan is controlled by a drug kingpin named Raybel Jacobo de Almonte, also known as “El Tequilero.”
De Alamonte has lived up to his nickname, which translates roughly as “The Tequila Drinker.” In his only known public appearance, he was captured on video drinking with the town’s mayor-elect. De Alamonte mumbles inaudibly and has to be held up in a sitting position by one of his henchmen.
Maybe this less than intimidating display influenced the decision to challenge de Almonte instead of submitting.
In recent months, his gang – also known as the Tequileros – has been fighting turf battles with other gangs in the area. Last week, the Tequileros allegedly kidnapped several inhabitants of Totolapan who they wanted to extort or whom they suspected of supporting a rival.
In response, a few dozen men appeared this week in the streets of Totolapan waving shotguns and hunting rifles. In a video, the men carry banners calling for action against El Tequilero and identify themselves as a “self-defense” force, as vigilantes are known in the region.
“We urgently demand the release of the kidnap victims,” a masked man says in a statement read on the video. “We are a legitimate self-defense force of the people.”
Among the Tequileros’ kidnap victims was a local construction engineer, Isauro de Paz Duque, who was snatched on Sunday by men who had threatened to kill him.
This was apparently the last straw, because in response the townspeople kidnapped El Tequilero’s mother, then offered her in exchange for the construction engineer.
On Monday, a woman who identified herself as De Paz Duque’s wife said on a video that townspeople had El Tequilero’s mother and would exchange the woman for her husband.
“We have your mother here, Mr. Tequilero,” she said. “I propose an exchange: I’ll give you your mother if you give me my husband, but I want him safe and sound.”
The state government of Guerrero and police acted as the middle-man for the standoff and hostage exchange.
The state government said in a statement that a negotiating team had been sent to establish contact with the family of the missing engineer and the vigilantes and to set up a search team.
“The goal of the team is to ensure that no injury is done to the missing person, nor to the mother of the head of the Tequileros gang, who has apparently been taken by the self-defense forces,” the statement said.
The government later confirmed that about five of the two dozen people being held by the vigilantes had been freed, but those freed did not include the gang boss’ mother.
Police say that these community defense groups are only making their job more difficult.
The area is a hotbed of drug trafficking, killings and extortion. It is the foot of the mountains that produce much of Mexico’s opium poppy crop.
Totolapan is considered so dangerous that many outlying hamlets in the township have been abandoned by fearful residents. In 2014, the battered body of the parish priest, the Rev. Ascension Acuna Osorio, was found floating in the Balsas river near the town.
The emergence of vigilante groups, also known as self-styled “community police,” has become a headache for Guerrero’s government. Authorities say they understand residents’ frustration but note the groups often wind up kidnapping suspects, fighting among themselves or preventing police from doing their work.
One would think that if the police were doing their work, there wouldn’t be so many people resorting to being vigilantes. It may be a sign that enforcing the law has become an intractable task for the Mexican government. For Americans, this situation means more illegal immigration and more drugs smuggled across the border. Mexico’s problems become our problems. No wonder so many people rallied behind a promise to build a wall.