One Mexican town is so fed up with the drug cartels that have wreaked havoc on their country they’ve decided on a drastic remedy.
Angry townspeople in Totolapán, a small town in Guerrero state, south of Mexico City, kidnapped the mother of a gang leader as a bargaining chip to release their own loved ones who have gone missing in the drug battles, according to a video released on Monday. The town is at the epicenter of the country’s cartel violence.
The government of the Guerrero state announced it was dispatching over 200 police and soldiers to Totolapán to help contain the situation and avert a new outbreak of violence. Jacobo de Almonte, the drug boss known as “El Tequilero,” has been battling other rival gangs to retain control of the city.
Last week, in rival gang turf battles, “El Tequilero’s” gang reportedly kidnapped townspeople to extort and stamp out support for rival gangs. A group of vigilantes, armed with shotguns and hunting rifles, struck back, kidnapping a group of alleged gang members and de Almonte’s mother.
In a video released on Monday, a woman who identified herself as the wife of a local construction worker who was kidnapped by the Tequilero gang said townspeople had the drug boss’s wife. “We have your mother here, Mr. Tequilero,” the woman said in the video. “I propose an exchange: I’ll give you your mother if you give me my husband, but I want him safe and sound.”
The Guerrero state also said it was sending a negotiating team to the city to help. “The goal of the team is to ensure that no injury is done to the missing person, nor to the mother of the head of the Tequileros gang, who has apparently been taken by the self-defense forces,” the statement said. The negotiating team apparently brokered a hostage exchange agreement for the drug boss’s mother, overseen by the state police. The vigilantes agreed to release their own hostages into police custody as long as the police investigate them.
The Guerrero government has undertaken a massive and so far unsuccessful manhunt for “El Tequilero” since November, after reports emerged that the drug boss was wounded and hiding in the mountains outside town.
In those mountains grows much of Mexico’s illicit opium poppy crop, making Totolapán a hub of the drug trade and gang violence. Vigilante groups have proliferated in the state as police forces struggled to contain violence from warring gangs, frustrating state officials.
“The truth is, they are not really community forces, nor are they police,” the Guerrero governor Hector Astudillo said. “They are armed groups that unfortunately carry out acts…that generate more violence and confrontation, rather than help.”
In 2014, the Mexican government released data on its nearly decade-long war on drugs showing that over 164,000 people died during the peak of the war between 2007 and 2014. In 2016, Mexico recorded over 17,000 homicides since October as a result of the drug war. By comparison, 104,000 people, including 31,000 civilians, have died in Afghanistan’s war since 2001.
Photo credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images