Jesús Morones, the owner of a candy shop in El Salto, a rugged industrial area on the southeastern fringe of the Guadalajara metropolitan area, says he's been robbed at gunpoint eight times.
"Last time they beat me and locked me and my family in here for 10 minutes while they took what they wanted. They were looking for money but they even took a box of chocolates to snack on afterwards," he says. "My son was crying and one of the bastards even grabbed my wife's buttocks."
With the police providing little or no protection against this kind of violent crime, inhabitants of Guadalajara's forgotten outskirts have begun forming vigilante groups known as autodefensas, or self-defense squads. Vigilantes have famously fought drug gangs in the nearby states of Michoacán and Guerrero in recent years, but their emergence in the major city of Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco, is more recent and hardly reported.
Gazing out over El Salto's scorched scrubland as he patrols the dirt roads of his rundown neighborhood, Raúl Muñoz, a 59-year-old former guerrilla, says he leads the largest of 27 autodefensa cells scattered across the town.
Constantly wary of halcones, or hawks, as cartel lookouts are known, Muñoz points out several black pickup trucks with tinted windows. He says they probably belong to members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or CJNG in Spanish. He adds that the cartel has "complete control" of El Salto and the neighboring municipality of Tlajomulco.
The CJNG is a relatively new cartel that has grown and expanded rapidly in the last five years to become one of Mexico's most powerful criminal organizations. Muñoz suspects it has begun working with smaller groups of petty criminals in El Salto, leading to an increase in kidnappings, thefts, and rapes.
'We don't want people to know who we are, because that would put everyone's safety at risk'
Softly spoken but firm in his convictions, Muñoz says the rising insecurity led a group of locals to form a vigilante group early last year. He adds that their resolve only hardened when gunmen killed one member as a warning in February 2015.
That murder, which remains unsolved, nevertheless ensured they try to keep a low profile and never flaunt their weapons in public. Muñoz says they carry shotguns, hunting rifles and low-caliber pistols, and even have a cache of assault rifles in reserve in case of emergency, though he declined to show them.
"We have to be very discreet, above all because we don't know who we're up against. It could be our neighbors or people very close to us," Muñoz says, after stopping to greet a group of local high-school students. "We don't want people to know who we are, because that would put everyone's safety at risk."
The group says it has learned from the way the vigilantes that rose up in the neighboring state of Michoacán in 2013 were both heavily infiltrated by members of local cartels, and also domesticated by the government. That is why, Muñoz says, they are very selective about who can join.
He says his 47-member group is made made up of labor leaders, environmentalist, and middle-aged housewives who take turns patrolling their dusty and deceptively quiet streets at night. If they detain a criminal, he adds, they either hand them over to the police or force them to leave the area.
Muñoz, who used to make tires at a local factory, has over three decades of experience in radical activism. He aided left-wing groups in El Salvador in the 1980s and later joined Mexico's indigenous Zapatista rebel movement, first as a human rights observer and later as a member of their armed wing, from 1994 until 2003.
"For years I had mentors from the Zapatista high command who taught me how autodefensas work," Muñoz says. "The most valuable thing I learned from them was discipline. That's the basis for everything."
'We weren't formed to bring down the government… but we want them to know that someone's watching them, and that if it comes down to it we will defend our families and our properties'
Despite having faded from the national consciousness, the anti-capitalist Zapatistas still live in autonomy in remote parts of Chiapas, where they retain relatively strong support from local communities.
"We weren't formed to bring down the government," Muñoz says, "but we want them to know that someone's watching them, and that if it comes down to it we will defend our families and our properties."
The autodefensas of Guadalajara have gone almost unnoticed outside of their communities, but the odd security expert, like Francisco Jiménez Reynoso from the University of Guadalajara, has tracked their progress since the first groups emerged about two years ago.
Jiménez says the majority are located in Zapopan, the largest of the city's nine municipalities, and in El Salto, Tlajomulco, and Zapotlanejo. Local authorities have quietly tolerated them, he adds, while wealthy businessmen have even started hiring autodefensas to protect their families, homes, and business interests.
The academic blames the breakdown of security in Guadalajara on the political rivalry between the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governs Jalisco, and the Citizen's Movement party, that controls most of the metropolitan area. Both sides have politicized the security issue ahead of the 2018 elections, with the Jalisco governor and his attorney general publicly blaming their local rivals for the lack of police presence in Guadalajara's vulnerable outskirts.
While the authorities squabble over who is to blame, another El Salto shopkeeper called Adolfo says many residents have begun buying handguns because they often go days without even seeing a police officer.
The risk is that this leads to ever-worsening cycles of violence.
Morones, from the candy store, says he does not trust other members of the community enough to join one of the autodefensa groups, but he too has taken to fighting back.
'In this kind of situation the best thing would almost be to kill these sons of bitches, if you can, and dump their bodies'
The last time he was robbed, Morones says he recognized one of the aggressors as a neighbor from a few blocks away. Enraged, he went to the man's house, beat him, and dragged him to a police car. Released on bail within three days, the thief filed a complaint with the local human rights commission, which ordered Morones to pay roughly $80 to cover his medical costs.
"You can't be afraid of these bastards. All you can do is defend yourself because you don't gain anything by going to the police," Morones said. "In this kind of situation the best thing would almost be to kill these sons of bitches, if you can, and dump their bodies."
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