One of the stranger chapters of Mexico’s drug war had a relative happy ending Wednesday, after residents of a southern town freed the mother of a drug gang leader and the criminals released a kidnapped businessman.
The releases were part of a solution negotiated by the Guerrero state government to ease a tense standoff in Getyty, a town sitting in one of the prime opium-producing regions of Mexico.
Vigilantes angered by kidnappings and killings took up arms Monday and abducted the mother of a drug gang boss known as “El Tequilero.” They then offered to free her and about 20 suspected members of the Tequileros gang, but they demanded the release of a local construction engineer snatched by the gang Sunday.
The Guerrero government issued a statement late Wednesday saying both the mother and the kidnapped businessman, engineer Isauro de Paz Duque, had been turned loose.
“After his family received Isauro de Paz Duque, they and a group of townspeople who have been supporting them, turned over to police Mrs. Maria Felix de Almonte Salgado, the mother of the presumed leader of the kidnapping gang,” the statement said.
The government had given slightly different spellings of those names Tuesday.
“It is expected that in the coming hours, 19 more people who are being held by the townsfolk of San Miguel Totolapan will be turned over to authorities,” the statement added.
The state government sent about 220 soldiers and police to try to defuse the situation in Totolapan, which has been effectively controlled for years by the Tequileros drug gang.
The leader, whose proper name is Raybel Jacobo de Almonte, has lived up to his nickname, which translates roughly as “The Tequila Drinker.” In his only known public appearance, he was captured on video drinking with the town’s mayor-elect. De Alamonte mumbles inaudibly and has to be held up in a sitting position by one of his henchmen.
In recent months, his gang – also known as the Tequileros – has been fighting turf battles with other gangs in the area. Last week, the Tequileros allegedly kidnapped several inhabitants of Totolapan who they wanted to extort or whom they suspected of supporting a rival.
In response, a few dozen men appeared this week in the streets of Totolapan waving shotguns and hunting rifles. In a video, the men carry banners calling for action against El Tequilero and identify themselves as a “self-defence” force, as vigilantes are known in the region.
“We urgently demand the release of the kidnap victims,” a masked man says in a statement read on the video. “We are a legitimate self-defence force of the people.”
On Monday, a woman who identified herself as De la Paz Duque’s wife said on a video that townspeople had El Tequilero’s mother and would exchange the woman for her husband.
“We have your mother here, Mr. Tequilero,” she said. “I propose an exchange: I’ll give you your mother if you give me my husband, but I want him safe and sound.”
Seldom have townspeople in Mexico won such a striking victory over drug gangs. The nearest example occurred in the neighbouring state of Michoacan, where armed groups rose up in 2013 and chased out a drug cartel.
But the emergence of vigilante groups has become a headache for Guerrero’s government. Authorities say they understand residents’ frustration but note that the groups often wind up kidnapping suspects, fighting among themselves or preventing police from doing their work.
Gov. Hector Astudillo said Tuesday: “This is something that has to end – that every time somebody gets the idea into their head of kidnapping somebody, they kidnap them.”