Housewife Audifa Miranda Arismendi showed up at the vigilante checkpoint in El Pericon with a vat of chilate, a local beverage made of rice, cocoa beans and cinnamon, for the masked men. "It's good to help out here, because this is for the good of all," she said.
Some officials, too, have cautiously approved of the do-it-yourself police. Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre offered to supply them with uniforms so they wouldn't be confused with masked gang members, but he also said he is trying to eliminate the need for vigilantes by beefing up official forces.
Community and indigenous rights activists often see citizen patrols as a good alternative or addition to standard rural police forces that are considered corrupt or repressive.
But clearly, the vigilante squads here present problems even in their first few weeks. The vigilantes in Guerrero are holding, by their own account, 44 people accused of crimes ranging from homicide to theft. Nobody outside the village of El Zapote, where they are being held in a makeshift jail, knows what conditions they are being held in, or what charges, if any, there are against them.
When the head of the Guerrero state Human Rights Commission, Juan Alarcon Hernandez, showed up to check on the prisoners' condition, he was met by about 100 angry villagers who said they didn't want anyone to visit the prisoners. "No, no, no. We want justice!" the crowd shouted.
"We wanted to see what condition these people are in, as a human rights issue and as a humanitarian issue," said Alarcon Hernandez. Eventually, he and his aides turned around and left, unsure how to proceed, because the self-defense squads exist in legal limbo.
Still, the idea of citizen patrols is spreading in Mexico.
In 2011, townsfolk in the pine-covered-hill town of Cheran in neighboring Michoacan state began armed patrols in the face of what they said were the killings of farmers by illegal loggers in league with drug traffickers. In the northern state of Chihuahua, a community of farmers and ranchers known as Colonia Lebaron — most of whom hold dual U.S. citizenship — set up self-defense squads following the 2009 killings of two of its members.
And in the drug-plagued northern state of Sinaloa, the mayor of Concordia, Jose Elijio Medina, responded to a massacre, which forced everyone in a remote hamlet to flee, by calling for the Mexican army to revive the Rural Self Defense Corps, units of armed farmers it once helped train and supervise. While the army did not respond to requests to say how many of the units remain, local media have reported the army has been trying to wind down the few remaining units.
Since 1995, about 80 villages in Guerrero state have organized legal "community police" forces in which poorly armed villagers detain and prosecute people.
With their own jails, "courts" — actually village assemblies that can hand down verdicts — and punishments that can include forced labor for the town or re-education talks, the community police are recognized by state law, though rights activist Hernandez said there is still friction when community rules intersect with the formal legal system.
He pointed to one incident in 2012 where a judge and a detective in the Guerrero town of San Luis Acatlan arrested a community police leader for exceeding his authority. Villagers responded by arresting the judge, the detective and an assistant.
Members of the vigilante squads in Guerrero say what they want from the government is some kind of salary, not modern weapons. What counts, they say, are their ties to the community and resistance to corruption.
"When the people are united, it doesn't matter if it's a .22, a 16-gauge shotgun or 20-gauge. It's that when we are united, not even bullets from an AK-47 can defeat us," said the self-defense commander in Las Mesas. "They can't kill us all."