New Mexican vigilante group's sympathizers set fire to government offices, businesses

Residents and members of the new self-defense group known as 'El Machete' stand next to a burnt truck as others look for members of drug gangs and municipal authorities during a protest against the growing violence in the area, in Pantelho, in Chiapas state, Mexico July 27, 2021. Picture taken July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Jacob Garcia

PANTELHO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican villagers sympathizing with a new indigenous self-defense group torched government offices, businesses and houses in a remote mountainous region in southern Chiapas state this week, protesting rampant insecurity in the area.

The violence in the indigenous Tzotzil community of Pantelhó late on Monday and early on Tuesday came less than two weeks after a group of hooded men, calling themselves El Machete, took up arms in nearby Chenalhó to confront drug-trafficking gangs. It was unclear how many members El Machete has.

Reuters images of Pantelhó after the fires showed the charred remains of buildings, vehicles and houses, with hooded men armed with machetes standing nearby.

"There is no security here, there is no peace, there is no tranquility," said an unidentified El Machete member, his face covered, in a speech before a crowd on Tuesday afternoon in the main square of Pantelhó.

"There is only fear, crying and fear, extortion and intimidation," he added.

He said residents of the area, not El Machete, were behind the fires. Two villagers in Pantelho agreed. Local men targeted the houses of people suspected to have links with drug traffickers, the two villagers said.

Local authorities could not be reached for comment.

The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre last week said that more than 3,000 people in the area have had to abandon their homes in recent months due to incursions by criminal groups seeking to take over the territory.

Many tens of thousands of people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since the government embarked on a "war on drugs" in 2006.

Mexicans in different parts of the country have responded to spiraling violence and weak government response by forming self-defense militias.

Asked about the emergence of El Machete recently, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he was against groups that take "justice into their own hands."

(Reporting by Jacob Garcia; Writing by Drazen Jorgic)

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