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

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.

“You guys are like vultures,” said another man as he drank from a one-liter bottle of beer known as a caguama. “Once you smell a dead body, you start circling around, but as soon as you get to the bones, you leave and we have to stay.”

Another Infamous Lynching Long Ago

The lynching last month was the second time in modern history that the town has received international attention for vigilante actions. On January 11, 1892, The New York Times reported that the town’s mayor, a day after his election, was surrounded and killed by a crowd of about a hundred angry citizens unhappy with the ballot result.

Since then, Ascensión has experienced all the traumas of Mexican history, including the campaigns of the infamous Pancho Villa, who dominated the surrounding state, Chihuahua, during the Mexican Revolution.

But overall, Ascensión has largely stayed out of the spotlight. Until the lynching two weeks ago, few people in Mexico knew about this town, which locals have nicknamed “La Chona.”

Those locals willing to talk about the lynching insist that they witnessed the violence, but took no part in it.

“Everybody knew the kidnappers, they were people from the town,” says a man who claims to have witnessed the lynching from a rooftop, but declined to give his real name.

“I don’t want any problems … I have a family to feed,’’ he added.

Bit by bit, however, and under condition of anonymity, Ascensión locals began to draw a picture of the incident that put the town’s name in the national and international press.

First Extortion, Then Kidnappings

The extortion racket came first, five or six years ago, townspeople said. Everybody was a target, whether they were rich or poor. Shop owners, taco stand operators, farmers and cattle ranchers all had been subject to years of harassment -- forced to pay tribute to the criminal gangs in the form of a “cuota,” a weekly payment in exchange for protection.

Then, about four years ago, the kidnappings began. The ransom was usually 30,000 to 40,000 pesos, or from $2,000 to $3,000.

Residents of Ascensión agreed that the perpetrators were not members of sophisticated drug-trafficking organizations, but merely local criminals trying to profit from Mexico’s lawlessness.

Local police had been informed many times of the gang members’ identities, but almost nothing was done to stop or punish them, locals said. In the few times when suspects were arrested, they would be roaming the streets, free again, within a couple of weeks.

The situation got so bad that in June 2009, a group of locals took over City Hall one day, demanding that officials pay attention to their security concerns. Again, nothing happened.

So townspeople decided to take action.

A Father Calls, and a Town Acts

On Sept. 21, a gang of teenage suspects allegedly kidnapped a 17-year-old girl working as a waitress at a small seafood restaurant.

The girl’s father was alerted while the kidnapping was in progress and promptly called the police and army, as well as relatives and friends, said Carlos Gonzalez, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office in Chihuahua.

There was a car chase involving police and military personnel, and two of the suspects’ three vehicles rolled over.

Soldiers rescued the girl and arrested some of the alleged kidnappers. Two other suspects managed to escape by running through surrounding fields. A local fumigating plane was called to join the chase, and residents caught the fleeing youths.

Three of the young men arrested were taken to Ciudad Juarez, about 100 miles north of Ascension on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tempers grew heated when townspeople learned of the transfers to Ciudad Juarez courts, which have a reputation for allowing criminals to walk free.

Around 2 p.m., the group of residents who had caught the two fleeing suspects decided they would exact their own punishment. As some in the mob grabbed the youths and beat them, others crowded together to block police and paramedics from the scene.

Ultimately, the townspeople surrendered the badly injured youths to authorities, and police carried them to their patrol cars. But the angry mob blocked the cars from leaving, in part because they did not want the suspects prosecuted elsewhere. With the car windows rolled up against the crowd in the 100-degree heat, the young men perished.

The crowd only dispersed after one of the suspects’ mothers was able to pass through and ascertain that her son had died, witnesses said.

A Priest’s Lament

The next Sunday, during Mass, the town’s priest called on his faithful to remember that “violence generates more violence.” But even Father José Antonio Silva said he understood his parishioners’ frustration.

“I don’t agree with what they have done,” the priest said. “But I can understand their frustration about authorities doing nothing.”

In Mexican media, many opinions echoed Father Silva’s.

While uneasy about the vigilante violence, it was clear to Mexicans that a precedent had been set. The citizens of “La Chona” had withstood the atmosphere of lawlessness for too long.

Anger had boiled over, as it was sure to do in other Mexican communities where impunity seems to be the only law of the land.

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