MEXICO CITY -- An outbreak of violence in rural southwestern Mexico has led civilians in a string of communities to take up arms and police their own communities, shining a light on the lack of state security as a new administration prepares to take on the country's violence.
The latest eruption of citizen policing began about three weeks ago in the small, mountainous town of Ayutla de los Libres, in Guerrero State, when residents picked up rifles and machetes and arrested at least three dozen people they said the authorities had failed to apprehend.
Since then, the practice has spread to other areas of the state, with movement leaders and local human rights officials saying more than a hundred small communities are now patrolling themselves.
Last week, local news media reported that indigenous communities in Jalisco State were also planning their own citizen police forces.
Vigilante justice is not uncommon in Mexico, particularly in rural, indigenous areas where there is a lack of police officers and mistrust of state institutions runs deep. But the spread of drug and organized crime gangs into remote regions in recent years has worsened the sense of lawlessness there, creating the kind of flare-ups in violence that the new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to control with a planned paramilitary force.
The new vigilante movements join older, more established citizen police forces in Guerrero State, some dating to 1995. Before the outbreak this month, the vigilante movement already claimed to be the law in 77 towns and villages in the state. The movement has also spread to Colonia Lebarón, in the border state of Chihuahua, where residents set up a civilian defense force in 2009 after two residents were murdered, and Cherán, in Michoacán State, whose residents expelled the police in 2011, closed entrances to the town and armed themselves against violent illegal loggers believed to be protected by criminal syndicates.
In Ayutla de los Libres, the citizen police squads have built their own checkpoints, copying the other grass-roots police movements in the region. The fate of those arrested, who are suspected of extortion and kidnapping, is uncertain. Abel Barrera Hernández, a human rights official in Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, said residents would investigate the offenses and hold a public trial by month's end.
There are no independent estimates of how many people are participating in these efforts. But movement leaders expect more and more communities to join in.
"The most important weapon will be the organization of the people," said Bruno Plácido Valerio, who helps organize community policing in Guerrero. He said he had been getting regular calls from other community leaders who want to join the movement.
The state governor, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, appears to be tolerating the turn of events, striking a balance between promises to restore state authority while acknowledging the gaps in policing by providing some of the more established community police with vehicles, uniforms and radios. Federal officials sent in the military to take control of checkpoints in Ayutla de los Libres and several other towns on Wednesday, according to the Guerrero State government.
"We understand you, and that's why we have to exercise all the force of the state to protect you," Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior secretary, said Thursday at a news conference in Nayarit State.
Much of the self-policing occurs in indigenous communities, where poverty and marginalization run deep. Many of these communities have long harbored suspicion of the state; indeed some consider themselves autonomous from Mexico, which at times has granted them de facto self-rule. "They have been permitted to re-evaluate their institutions, recreate them, and confront something that the Mexican state has not been able to resolve," said Sergio Sarmiento Silva, an expert on indigenous movements at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Some officials, including the governor, are balancing calls to respect state authority while advocating for some legal recognition of the community police groups to fill obvious gaps in law and order. "We should propose a constitutional reform where the participation of the community police is included, because in many places where they operate, delinquency levels are down," Mr. Aguirre Rivero said.
Mr. Plácido Valerio said the community police would abide by due process for those detained.
Meanwhile, they are already facing some of the thorny issues encountered by the professionals they replaced. On Tuesday, a self-defense civilian unit in Atliaca, Guerrero, shot and killed Benito García, a 30-year-old suspected of stealing. The details remain murky. Mr. García's family says he was innocent and has demanded a state investigation.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.