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With the authorities unable to protect them, the residents of a small town in the state of Chihuahua that has suffered an average of three kidnappings per week finally had enough:
Ascension is a farming community of some 15,000 people, about 100 miles south of the border with New Mexico. In the past two years, kidnapping and extortion have been rampant.
“Our problems with public security have spoiled our progress in this town,” says Rafael Camarillo, the outgoing mayor.
The public fury happened Tuesday when an armed group allegedly kidnapped a 16-year-old girl from her family’s seafood restaurant. The kidnappers escaped down a gravel road, and word of the missing girl spread quickly.
Soon, a group of about 200 residents began the chase. Three of the alleged kidnappers were captured by the Mexican military, who have a presence in the town.
Three others fled into a nearby cotton field, where one was later found dead. The other two were hunted down and beaten by the mob from Ascension.
“When they found them, it was a direct aggression,” says Ignacio Rodriguez, a local kitchen-cabinet maker who was elected to head city council next month.
The girl was rescued unharmed by the residents.
Two of the kidnappers were taken by federal police to a nearby Mexican Army base, but the mob wasn’t done with them: they stormed the base, seized the kidnappers, and locked them in a hot car until they died.
Let’s be blunt: these three deaths were acts of murder. But it is both hard to sympathize with the victims and not hard to sympathize with the townsfolk. What are they supposed to do when their own government can’t or won’t protect them? The local force was so useless that the Mayor of Ascension fired them all after this incident. Corruption is rampant in the local, state, and federal police forces. At some point, the people are left with a choice: wait like sheep to be slaughtered or fight back. The people of Ascenscion made their choice.
Of course, fighting back against teenaged kidnappers is one thing, but striking back at heavily armed, ruthless cartels is another altogether. Mexico’s gun laws are very strict, so law-abiding citizens are effectively disarmed from the start. Yet the presence of such laws implies a clause in the social contract: in return for not bearing arms, the state promises to protect its citizens. If the government cannot do this, then the contract is broken and the state loses legitimacy. Society reverts to a state of nature and residents are forced to take justice into their own hands.
While Mexico is not yet a failed state and may never become one, the incidents at Ascension are nevertheless further signs of a fraying social fabric that, unmended, could one day fall apart.
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)