State police in Michoacán found three bodies Saturday along a stretch of highway connecting the town of Peribán to Buenavista. In a press release, the state prosecutor’s office, known as the PGJE, presumed the bodies belonged to three members of the “community guard” self defense group of Los Reyes, a municipality in the Purépecha region, not far from the state line with Jalisco.

The bodies of the three men, whose identities have not been confirmed at this time, reportedly bore signs of torture and the execution-style “tiro de gracia” bullet wound to the back of the head. All three were wearing t-shirts of the community guard, the de-facto uniform of a local self-defense group. The PJGE indicated a written threat was left on a piece of cardboard along with the bodies. It read “Esto les va a pasar a los comunitarios que vengan a irrumpir al pueblo de Los Reyes” or “This is what will happen to the community [guard] that encroach into the town of Los Reyes”.

Just nine days before, on September 26th, three severed heads were left at the base of a monument in a traffic circle in Los Reyes with a threat reading “This is what will happen to all the ‘community [guard]’ scum who come to disturb the peace in Los Reyes” and noted the nicknames of three people, presumably leaders of the municipality’s community guard. The three men, later identified by relatives, included an uncle and nephew from the town of Tepalcatepec and a man from Tancítaro. None were identified by relatives as having ties to the “community guard” in Los Reyes.

Photos taken of the severed heads arranged on the monument made the rounds in social and traditional media in Mexico. The photos published in established media outlets were not credited. At least three different photos exist, one taken in the pre-dawn darkness, and two others just after daybreak, suggesting the photographers were not particularly worried about calling attention to themselves by using a flash or being in the close proximity of a high-impact crime scene over a lapse of time. The use of a local monument in a traffic circle to leave grotesque arrangements of heads and messages is similar to narcopropaganda fear tactics used in Nuevo Laredo in the fall of 2011.

What has occured in the past two weeks in Los Reyes did not come without warning. On August 14th, a group of Purépecha “comuneros” (communal land holders) from the municipality of Los Reyes held a press conference in Mexico City to call media attention to the situation there and to request action from the Secretary of the Interior. They listed a series of macabre acts of violence, like multiple bodies left on public display, and accused Los Reyes municipal police of having a direct role in the climate of insecurity. The members of the delegation, whose covered faces and verbal tones in the press conference underscored a fear for their safety, said local and state officials had turned a blind eye to their reports of corruption within the ranks of the municipal police.

The emergence of unregulated militia or self-defense squads is a relatively recent phenomenon in Mexico, but one that usually occurs in the context of violence and institutional vacuums. “Community guard” style self-defense efforts first appeared in indigenous Purépecha and Nahua communities of Michoacán affected by organized crime activities. Militia style efforts led by non-indigenous private citizens have also sprung up in towns near the state line with Jalisco. A common factor in the emergence of self-defense groups is the persistent complaint that the authorities tasked with providing public security have systematically failed to do so.

The leader of a Michoacán drug cartel has publicly accused these self-defense groups of being armed proxies of a rival cartel based in Jalisco. Some of these self-defense groups are armed with high caliber rifles that are legally off-limits to ordinary Mexican citizens. Whether or not these armed actors have ties to organized crime or are the result of a citizenry pushed to the limits and left to their own devices (or a combination of the two) is difficult to deduce from a distance. What is clear is that, at least in the case of Los Reyes, all three levels of government have been alerted to the situation on the ground and there’s no evidence of improvement in the day-to-day public security reality of the local civilian population.

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