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As Local Criminals Attempt to Take Advantage of Lawlessness, Mexican Communities Fight Back

Two suspected 17-year-old kidnappers were grabbed by an angry mob and beaten to death.

ASCENSION, Mexico -- Tired of experiencing kidnappings every week with little or no response from local, state or federal police, residents of this northern Mexican town decided to take action.

The kidnappers weren’t expecting that. They were used to easy work -- and to getting away with their crimes.

For the bands of kidnappers operating in this part of Mexico, it’s an almost routine operation: pick a victim, point guns at whoever happens to be nearby, and force the target to board a waiting vehicle, usually a stolen one. Speed away and call the family to ask for ransom.

There are only two escape routes from Ascensión. One leads to Highway 45, one of Mexico’s main roads. The other cuts through the Sierra Madre Occidental, a treacherous chain of mountains that slides south from the Rockies across the states of Chihuahua and Durango, toward Mexico’s middle. It is “narco land” -- a no man’s land.

But according to the accounts of Ascensión residents, the kidnappers who snatched a teenage girl two weeks ago were not narcos, and after this particular job, they didn’t get very far.

The incident -- in which two suspected 17-year-old kidnappers were grabbed by an angry mob and beaten to death -- generated headlines across Mexico.

Government Failures

The lynching in Ascensión was linked to widespread frustration over the Mexican government’s inability to protect its own citizens. None of the government’s strategies -- increasing the size of the federal police, deploying the military to trouble spots in order to bolster state and local efforts -- appears to be making a dent in the crime problem.

In the wake of the Ascensión lynching, Mexican columnists and international analysts wondered if desperate Mexican citizens would simply turn to a quicker, “do-it-yourself” solution: vigilante justice.

Indeed, there are signs that it has already been happening. Last month, police in the state of Mexico rescued an alleged house burglar who was captured and beaten by a crowd. In February, hundreds of Oaxaca taxi drivers beat and set fire to an alleged car thief.

"In Ascensión, the people won," wrote Denise Maerker, a well-known columnist from El Universal, a daily newspaper with national circulation. "That's the way they felt, and that's the way it looks. However, the trend could spread, and [if it happens] it wouldn't be good news for the country."

Newspapers closer to the scene were even harsher. "The tension still remains in a community traditionally set to work the fields and live from the agriculture. Now, men, women, and even children seem to be waiting for a signal of war to take over the streets again," wrote Luz del Carmen Sosa, a reporter for Diario de Juarez.

Little Sympathy for Dead Youths

In Ascensión, it was clear that few felt sympathy for the young men who fell to the mob’s wrath.

“They were common scoundrels taking advantage of the situation,” said Don Simón, a 75-year-old lifelong resident, as he sat in the town’s plaza. “The real narcos are people with honor. They don’t mess with you if you don’t mess with them.”

Ascensión is a small town where everybody is somebody. Locals have known each other for generations, and outsiders are easily identified. Ever since the lynching, townspeople have watched with a mixture of nervousness and curiosity as visitors from beyond the fields ringing the town have come asking questions.

“Why should I trust you? I don’t know you! You say you are a journalist and show me a piece of paper -- many people around here say they are federales [federal police] and have a piece of paper, too, but I don’t know who they are or for whom are they really working,” Don Simón added.

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