Public servants of every stripe across Mexico’s gang plagued regions face an existential choice.

“You serve God or you serve the Devil,” says Rafael Garcia, mayor of the isolated lumber town of Coalcoman, of the decision to confront or collude with organized criminal groups.

Garcia’s community is one of a handful near southern Mexico’s Pacific Coast that have dared to oppose the gangs this year with mostly poorly armed militias. Garcia is also one of the few mayors in the region operating on the lawful side of the battle lines.

“I stand with the people,” says Garcia, whose family owns one of the bustling sawmills in Coalcoman, a community of 10,000 people tucked into a small mountain range.

Citizens and militiamen chased out the mayors of two nearby towns, Buenavista Tomatlan and Tepacaltepec, for allegedly making deals with the Knights Templar, a crime syndicate controlling much of Michoacan state.

“He filled the town with organized crime,” Juana Francisca Reyes, a Tepacaltepec government employee, says of Mayor Guillermo Valencia, who fled the town in May. “We have been living with these people for years. But he made things so much worse.”

To the south of Michoacan sits the state of Guerrero, where a recent spate of attacks led Governor Angel Aguirre to warn local mayors about cozying up to the gangs.

“In some cases, certain mayors should distance themselves from their activities,” said Aguirre. “Because there is information out there that we are receiving, that we’ll have to process, dig into, investigate.”

The warning came after as many as 100 armed men besieged the small town of Teloloapan and surrounding communities, which sit in a drug production and trafficking region heavily contested by criminal groups such as the Familia Michoacana.

Yet with a general lack of support from state and federal governments, the mayors, police chiefs and others who refuse to submit to the will of criminal groups often pay with their lives.

Mexico’s National Federation of Municipalities has tallied at least 30 mayors, four mayors-elect and some 1,200 police officers and other local officials murdered during the six year term of former President Felipe Calderon, which ended December 1.

Assassinations continue, with a mayor gunned down several weeks ago in southern Oaxaca State and a mayoral candidate murdered in the mountains of northern Chihuahua State last week.

The surge of the self-defense militias, often calling themselves community police, has further complicated the issue. The vigilantes operate highway checkpoints, patrol country back roads, and round up anyone accused of working for the gangs which terrorize their communities. Among the accused have been mayors and police commanders, as well as rank and file police officers.

Before fleeing Tepacaltepec, Valencia blamed the militias for disrupting the rule of law in the region and called on state and federal governments to take action, just days before President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered troops and federal police into the region.

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Corruption pervades the Mexican government at every level and many local officials have proven more than willing to collude with crime syndicates. But even civic minded officials often find themselves unable or unwilling to resist the demands of illegal groups, given the consequences of doing so.

Should underworld control of their town change hands, as is often the case in this ongoing conflict, officials must decide which side to align with. Both choices invite retribution, often more severe than just a bullet, and federal security forces are rarely able to guarantee their safety.

“We need more army, more navy, and more Federal Police,” says Aguirre, who recently signed a pact to legalize vigilante groups in Guerrero. “Not only showing up when a critical situation exists, but permanently.”

Mayor Garcia and Coalcoman were lucky last month. President Enrique Peña Nieto finally deployed as many as 7,000 soldiers and federal police to the region after the Mexican national media carried images of the town’s masked militiamen flaunting automatic weapons, raising the prospect of more serious violence.

Community vigilantes elsewhere have been armed with old shotguns, low calibre rifles and pistols, but, according to Garcia, Coalcoman’s lumbermen and ranchers armed its militia with better weapons.

“How are you going to fight these people, with slingshots?” he quips.

In typical fashion, organized criminal groups have largely faded away with the arrival of federal forces. But in previous such operations the troops have not stayed long. Once they leave, Garcia and his town will face the gangsters again.

“We were terrified,” Garcia says of the decision in Coalcoman to turn on the Knights Templar. “We are a very small town raising its voice. Hopefully it will have an impact.”

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