Xaltianguis is in the Southern Mexican state of Guererro, a region home to illegal poppy and marijuana cultivation and plagued by violence. It is also located less than an hour away from Acapulco, one of Mexico's most dangerous cities. Like so many towns throughout Mexico, Xaltianguis—once a quiet farming town—has been at the mercy of organized crime for years, and by 2010 it had transformed into a mecca for murder, kidnapping and extortion. Yet this past summer, a group of ordinary women banded together for an extraordinary purpose: to make the town safer than it has been in years.
In late August, the first all-female armed Citizen Police group was formed in Xaltianguis. The force is made up of mostly middle-aged housewives, mothers and grandmothers. Many of these women have lost loved ones to violence, or were victims of crime themselves. They have lived in fear for their family, and they decided that they’ve had enough. So roughly 100 women have now volunteered to put their lives on the line in order to protect their children and defend their community.
Click below for images of Xaltianguis' female vigilantes.
In addition to going through weapons training and brushing up on police tactics such as patrols, vehicle searches and arrests (mostly of female criminals), the women have been traveling throughout the region to convince more women to form their own vigilante police forces. The women carry unloaded, rusty rifles that they often do not know how to use, and their uniforms consist of t-shirts and hats. Sometimes they bring their toddlers with them on patrol, or have to leave duty to pick their children up from school. The female Citizen Police of Xaltianguis are like an armed community watch—searching vehicles, looking through backpacks before and after school, having one ear to the ground and knowing who’s who and who’s doing what. Xaltianguis residents say they feel safer than ever.
This new sense of security is due in large part to a widespread movement of vigilante justice across Mexico. People all over the country, starting in Guerrero, have taken the law into their own hands and formed volunteer police or self-defense groups (auto-defensas). From town to town, local citizens take up arms and volunteer their time to protect their communities from delinquents, criminals, corrupt officials, and outside forces. It has become one of the most effective challenges to army abuse, drug cartel violence and government corruption in Mexico since the start of the country’s war against cartels that has left approximately 60,000 people dead since 2006.
This vigilante police movement is particularly strong in Guerrero, where they are officially organized as the Citizen Police (Policia Ciudadana, also known as the UPOEG) or the Community Police (Policia Communitaria, also known as the CRAC). In some towns the Community Police have existed for over a decade, when the “outside forces” they had to worry about were mining companies as opposed to drug traffickers. And although these armed groups are vigilantes by definition, many of them are technically legal due to a clause in the Mexican constitution that grants native indigenous communities certain autonomies.
The Community and Citizen Police of Guerrero tend to be left alone by the state officials who don’t have the capacity, or possibly the desire, to protect the townspeople. However they are in constant conflict with the federal army. According to the Community and Citizen Police leaders, the army has been harassing them, arbitrarily arresting movement leaders and threatening to disarm the entire movement by force.
Until now, the vigilante police movements were composed mainly of men. Xaltianguis has not only formed the first ever all-female Citizen Police group and spread the idea across the region, but it may have also found a solution to the conflict with the military, which justifies its repression with claims that the Community and Citizen Police are in cahoots with criminals. If the Citizen Police are really narcos, then why is your next-door neighbor’s mom one of them?