The arrest of the top two members of an upstart Mexican gang in the embattled state of Guerrero has added a jolt of uncertainty to one of the nation’s most conflicted areas, amid indications a fully-fledged vigilante movement could emerge.

Mexican authorities confirmed that on April 11, Federal Police had captured Antonio Reina Castillo and Ismael Castillo Marino, the respective leader and second-in-command of the Guerrero-based group, Los Rojos. Two gunmen were also arrested, after the pickup in which they were travelling was stopped in Martir de Cuilapan, a remote city in central Guerrero.

Los Rojos, an offshoot of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) that has long had a presence in Guerrero, operate primarily in this Pacific coastal state’s inland rural areas, although the group’s members have been detected around the central and southern portion of the country. Mexican authorities say the group makes its money from drug cultivation, kidnapping, and extortion.

SEE ALSO: BLO News and Profile

These arrests represent at least the second decapitation of the group’s leadership, and are just the latest in a long line of blows against Los Rojos. The organization’s founder, Crisoforo Rogelio Maldonado, was murdered in a Mexico City hospital in 2012. In September 2013, another high-ranking member, Leonor Nava Romero, was captured in the capital city of Guerrero, Chilpancingo.

In March 2014, federal authorities announced an operation targeting Los Rojos, which has precipitated a number of further arrests: Maria del Carmen Nava, the wife of founder Maldonado, was arrested in Queretaro, while prominent assassin Lizbeth Cantoran detained days later in Chilpancingo.

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Los Rojos are in many ways emblematic of the modern Mexican gang. They have their roots in a larger group, but do not have the brand name (or the South American connections) that larger groups enjoy. As a result, they rely more on extortion and kidnapping than the drug trade, which makes them a volatile actor and a more direct threat to civilians. 

The surge of Los Rojos largely corresponds with a power vacuum caused by the decline of their erstwhile patrons. Los Rojos are just one of several groups that emerged from the BLO in Guerrero, Mexico State, and Morelos; others include the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, the Hand with Eyes, and the South Pacific Cartel. None of these groups has managed to attain the hegemony in a given region comparable to what the BLO enjoyed, which has encouraged mutual challenges and contributed to a spiral of violence.

As a consequence, these groups’ emergence is one of the principal factors driving bloodshed in Guerrero, which has long been among the most violent regions in Mexico. In the past several years, however, the state has grown far worse, displacing Chihuahua as the source of the largest number of murders of any Mexican state. In 2012 (pdf), for instance, Mexico’s National Public Security System (SNSP, for its Spanish acronym) tallied 2,310 murders, compared to 1,997 in Chihuahua, where the war in Juarez had subsided substantially, and 2,130 in Mexico State, easily the country’s most populous state with 16.8 million people.

The following year (pdf), the figure dropped somewhat, but remained stratospheric: the SNSP counted 2,087 murders in Guerrero, compared to 1,932 in Mexico State, 1,443 in Chihuahua, and 1,208 in Sinaloa. Through the first two months of 2014 (pdf), little appeared to have changed: at 288 murders, the state is behind only Mexico State, which has a population roughly five times larger than Guerrero’s and registered 374 over the same period.

The aforementioned wave of arrests threatens the future viability of Los Rojos, and promises to open up a new power vacuum in Guerrero. Such an event could be a motor for future increases in violence in Guerrero.

Given this violence, the attacks on the local population, and the region’s history of insurgent groups, the question remains of whether Guerrero will one day birth a full-fledged vigilante movement like the one that has sprouted in Michoacan over the past several years. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mexico Vigilantes

There is clearly reason for political dissatisfaction with the authorities and outrage against criminal groups, who have targeted civilians with increasing frequency. And there have been indications of such civilian groups emerging over the past couple of years. In April, Milenio reported on such groups, armed with machetes and pipes but not firearms, operating on the outskirts of Chilpancingo. Many such groups have organized under the banner of the Union de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero (Union of Peoples and Organizations in the State of Guerrero), which suggests a growing political sophistication. 

The surge of new groups like Los Rojos, with more aggressive methods and a greater tendency toward warring with rivals, has helped turn Guerrero into one of the most violent states in the country. A further drift toward vigilantism would add a significant dose of chaos to a state that’s already seen plenty. 

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