Hundreds of peasants and Indians in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero have responded to the scourge of organized crime by arming themselves, detaining suspected criminals and setting up checkpoints at the entrances to their communities, Efe confirmed.

Residents of the municipalities of Ayutla de los Libres, Tecoanapa, Florencio Villarreal, Cuautepec, Copala and San Marcos have taken up arms to defend themselves from a drug-trafficking gang that a spokesman for the vigilantes said "is ordering them to pay protection money, charging extortion payments and selling drugs in their schools."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told Efe that the decision was made Sunday after a rancher from a community in Tecoanapa was abducted and the suspected kidnappers demanded a ransom payment of 150,000 pesos (nearly $12,000) for his release.

"It was then that the people armed themselves and went looking for the rancher. They set up checkpoints and secured his release and captured five kidnappers," he said.

A total of 37 suspected drug-gang hit men and drug dealers have been detained since the vigilante operations began and the checkpoints were first installed.

"We're holding them near a town and we expect they'll be tried in an assembly under the uses and customs of the communities," a masked peasant leader with rifle in hand said.

Indigenous people and communities in Mexico enjoy a certain amount of autonomy based on customary law, known as "uses and customs," although the latter must conform to human rights protections enshrined in Mexico's constitution.

The peasants and Indians, most wielding shotguns and pistols, have set up checkpoints on roads and entrances to Ayutla, Tecoanapa and Florencio Villarreal.

Those towns in Guerrero's Costa Chica region, which suffers from high rates of poverty and social exclusion, contain marijuana farms and are transshipment points for drugs being smuggled to the United States.

Authorities say the region is the turf of a gang known as Los Pelones that once worked for the cartel led by Arturo Beltran Leyva, killed in a December 2009 shootout with marines.

Conflict among rival crime outfits and between the gangs and Mexican security forces claimed some 70,000 lives during the 2006-2012 administration of President Felipe Calderon, who militarized the struggle against drug trafficking.

His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, inaugurated on Dec. 1, has said he will continue to involve the military in law enforcement in the country's most violence-wracked areas but also is touting a new approach to crime fighting that emphasizes citizens' safety and intelligence work. EFE