The man holding the sawed-off shotgun in the middle of the mountains is a ghost. He looks to be made of muscle and bone, waiting to fire a shot that could rip an arm off, but for the local government he is a mere rumor.
The phantom takes a bullet as thick as his index finger from an ammunition belt held by another man beside him. He puts it inside the gun, removes the safety, and places his finger on the trigger. The bullet clinks as it enters the chamber.
We are in the middle of nowhere in the Zongolica sierra in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. There are no houses around and our cell phones have no signal.
"My name is Román Vázquez González, leader of the self-defense force of the Zongolica Mountains," says the man, as the camera focuses on his uncovered face. "And together with me are…"
Suddenly, he aims at the sky and pulls the trigger. The shot breaks several tree branches sending a flurry of leaves drifting to the ground. The message seems aimed less at us, than at the other group that has also used this hiding place in the past — the infamous Zetas drug cartel.
Zongolica made national headlines briefly back in February 2007 when a 73-year-old woman called Ernestina Ascencio died after being brutally beaten. Before dying, Ascensión told her relatives that soldiers deployed in the town to combat drug traffickers and guerrillas, had raped and then beaten her. The government and the national commission on human rights never accepted that version of the events.
There have been many other tragedies in Zongolica since then, though these have come and gone in silence.
Most have been linked to the invasion of the area by traffickers, hitmen, kidnappers, and other criminals associated with the infamous Zetas cartel as they expanded their presence in the Gulf coast state that borders the frontier state of Tamaulipas.
First they hid in the rivers, caves, and crevices running through the area's mountains. Then they also began targeting local populations in extortion and kidnapping rackets.
In November 2012, the local authorities ordered a 10pm curfew for young residents of the Zongolica municipality, but this did not stop the violence.
Vázquez González, a painter, suffered the kidnaping of three young relatives in January 2013 putting him on the road to becoming the leader of the vigilantes, known as autodefensas.
Two months later the local priest organized a protest march in the town to demand an end to the attacks. The march turned violent when protesters almost lynched four men they believed were spying for the Zetas. Local police rescued the men, promising to put them in jail — but they were released.
The news that the men were free turned Zongolica into a ghost town, as everybody cowered in their homes fearing the Zetas would arrive to take revenge. Some did receive calls from the gang promising that revenge could come, later, beginning with the priest.
Locals say that this was the last straw, sending residents running for their hunting shotguns and pistols before flooding into the town's main square intent on organizing their resistance. Some say homemade bombs filled with nails were placed at the town's entrance.
Román Vázquez says that the criminals have become much more careful now when they enter the town.
"Cartels have two advantages over people: fear and surprise. We got rid of fear. And armed as we are, they lose the surprise element," Vázquez claims. "Everything started when we understood that, and we organized self-defense groups."
'If they want to fuck with us, they can do it, but they won't have it easy'
Three years on Vázquez says he heads a group of 134 armed campesinos who patrol the town, set up the odd roadblock, and always sleep close to their weapons, ready to take control of the town if he orders them to. The weapons are less sophisticated than those of the cartels, he admits, but they have a lot of practice hunting and he insists their aim is particularly good.
The Zongolica vigilantes are the first in the state of Veracruz to join the wider phenomenon that is most prominent in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán on the other side of the country. They are also the first clearly documented vigilantes to take on the Zetas, though the gang is now far less strong than it was a few years ago.
"We all have old weapons here. They may not be AK-47s, but these shotguns can pierce through everything," says Román Váquez. " With one shot you can take down four or five people. If they want to fuck with us, they can do it, but they won't have it easy. We are fed up."
The group first sought wider recognition in February 2014 when a group of masked men appeared in a YouTube video carrying rifles, knives, and ammunition. They anonymously posed in front of a sign that read "Self defense of the Zongolica Sierra," while demonstrating their shooting abilities, pretending to hit cartel members.
Two days after uploading the video, Vázquez sent a letter to the president saying that the group would put down their weapons if the authorities reinforced the security in the area. He says he never got a reply and that security was never reinforced.
The autodefensa leader alleges that criminal groups have a presence in the state because of agreements with the state government.
"We knew that the Zetas weren't going to be our main enemy, but the government," Vázquez says, claiming that they have a constitutional right to defend themselves if the government does not. "There's no organized crime in Veracruz, instead there are criminals tolerated by the government."
It began, he argues, during the administration of governor Fidel Herrera and has continued under the current governor Javier Duarte. Both are members of the same party as President Enrique Peña Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI.
Herrera was recently named consul in the Mexican consulate in Barcelona, prompting demonstrations from journalists, human rights activists, and the Mexican community in Spain. Duarte is one of the most questioned governors in the country given the current security situation that has left 17 journalist murdered, and the highest debt crisis in Veracruz' history.
'There's no organized crime in Veracruz, instead there are criminals tolerated by the government'
Duarte's government also appears determined not to see the Zongolica vigilantes.
Back in January 2014 he responded to reports about them by saying "there are definitely no self-defense groups in Veracruz." In mid-2015 he modified his position somewhat by stating that if they did exist they would be illegal.
A spokesman at the Veracruz government's press office told VICE News this week that she had no knowledge of any vigilante groups in the state. "This is the first time I have heard anything about vigilantes," she said, in answer to a question about how many of the groups there are. "I didn't know they existed in the state."
The man whose existence the government fails to admit looks satisfied at the camera when the sound of the shot gets lost within the mountains.
On the way back he talks about some of the massacred — past and present. There were the 35 bodies with signs of torture that were dumped in front of a shopping mall in Boca del Río in 2011; the 31 remains found in a clandestine grave in the town of Tres Valles in 2014.
This year there was the abduction of five youths who were then handed over to criminals by the police in Tierra Blanca, and the dozens of women kidnapped from the Córdoba-Orizaba area.
'I've been dead for three years. I'm perfectly aware that they are going to kill me. But the question is how they will do it'
Within it all, Román finds hope in reports of vigilantes rising up in other municipalities, like Soledad de Atzompa, Tequila, Río Blanco, and Tlaquilpa, in this year alone. He says he expects four more to take up arms before 2016 is over.
Veracruz, he says, is heading the way of Michoacán and Guerrero — the two Mexican states where the vigilante phenomenon is most developed.
"In Michoacán, the criminals were around for at least 10 years there before the self defense militias rose up. They took 10 years to defend themselves. Here, we've been organizing this for three years. But we won't get to five. This is going to blow up," he stated firmly. "Mark my words: Veracruz is going to be the next great national revolt because of insecurity."
In the meantime, Román says he knows that his own time is running out.
"I've been dead for three years. I'm perfectly aware that they are going to kill me. But the question is how they will do it," he says. "Everyone here in Zongolica agrees that if someone is kidnapped, the ransom must not be paid. It would be like feeding the wolves."
Until that happens, Román says he is determined to keep watching over his town. His objection, he says, has nothing to do with drugs or even crime in general. It comes down to a demand that the gangs leave local people alone.
"We don't have anything against criminals. Mexican people can do what they want with their lives," he says. "All we demand is that they don't extort, don't kidnap, and don't kill. If the criminals respect those three rules we will respect them."
Follow Oscar Balderas on Twitter: @oscarbalmen