Conservation policies have often been designed and implemented assuming that targeted communities are socially and politically homogeneous. Payment for environmental services (PES) programmes have often overlooked intra-community differences, which affect the understanding of implementation requirements and access to benefits, thus underestimating their effects on the programme's legitimacy and impacts. We explore how the views of local communities about the socio-environmental performance and dynamics of Mexico's PES differ within forest communities, considering two groups: local community authorities and the remaining beneficiaries in two different PES programmes. Informed by a nationwide survey, we constructed 35 indicators and found significant differences between these groups for 10 indicators. Local community authorities concentrated knowledge and information, relations with outside actors and control over benefit distribution. We found that community authorities and beneficiaries diverged in their views about the extent to which PES knowledge is shared across community members, how related implementation decisions are pursued and the fairness of benefit distribution, which we argue suggests this is a form of ‘elite capture’ favoured by PES design and implementation. Efforts should be invested in ensuring that PES programme benefits are equitably distributed in order to avoid widening pre-existing social and political asymmetries.