Shadow of vigilantes appears in Mexico drug war

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Shadowy vigilante groups are threatening Mexico's drug gangs near the U.S. border in retaliation for a wave of murders and kidnappings that killed 1,600 people in this city alone last year.

One group in the border city of Ciudad Juarez pledged last week to "clean our city of these criminals" and said their mission was to "end the life of a criminal every 24 hours."

The emergence of vigilantes would be a new twist to a vicious drug war that killed 5,700 people in Mexico last year and forced the United States to give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Mexican government.

Ciudad Juarez, a manufacturing center in the desert across from El Paso, Texas, was the scene of the worst violence in 2008 as drug cartels fought each other as well as staging kidnappings for ransom and extorting businessmen.

In an e-mail to news organizations, the "Juarez Citizen Command" said it was funded by local businessmen sick of abductions and extortion in the city, home to factories that export goods to the United States.

While none of the city's 1,600 in the last year were undoubtedly the work of vigilantes, a body was found on Jan. 7 with a message next to it that read: "This is for those who continue extorting."

And six men in their 20s and 30s were shot dead and dumped together in Ciudad Juarez in October with a cardboard sign reading: "Message for all the rats: This will continue."

Drug gangs often leave threatening messages with the bodies of their victims, but security officials said those two incidents might have been the work of vigilantes.

Another group, "Businessmen United, The Death Squad" put a video on Internet site YouTube last June threatening to go after kidnappers and criminals in Ciudad Juarez, the biggest city in Mexico's Chihuahua state. The video is no longer on YouTube.


State officials in Chihuahua said they were investigating who was behind the messages.

"We cannot tolerate the presence of these type of faceless, anonymous groups," said Manuel del Castillo, a spokesman for the state government.

Retiring CIA chief Michael Hayden said last week that Mexico's drug violence was possibly a greater problem than Iraq for President-elect Barack Obama. The U.S. Justice Department also says Mexican gangs are one of the biggest threats to the United States.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent tens of thousands of troops and federal police to battle drug gangs but the violence has become worse since he took office in 2006.

At least two other groups calling themselves vigilantes have sent statements to news organizations in the past two months, one in the northern state of Sonora bordering Arizona, and the other in the Pacific state of Guerrero, home to the beach resort of Acapulco.

In Ciudad Juarez, some residents say they would welcome vigilantes. "That way they would stop the gangs, the mafia. People are leaving here because of so many murders," said David Hinojosa, 30, who shines shoes in the city.

The city has been rocked by gun battles and beheadings by rival gangs fighting over smuggling routes into Texas, despite the presence of around 3,000 troops and federal police.

But local lawmakers say encouraging vigilantes is a mistake. Some residents question whether soldiers are moonlighting as hitmen for drug gangs, a charge the army denies.

"People's reactions are understandable. But this is not the route we should take to solve things," said Andreu Rodriguez, an opposition lawmaker and the head of security issues in Chihuahua's state legislature. (Additional reporting and writing by Robin Emmott in Monterrey; Editing by Kieran Murray)