Mexico | The Law Obeys

As Mexico is torn apart by an escalating drug war, one rural area has resisted the surge of violence—thanks to its volunteer police force

La Policia Comuniteria officers wait to march at the 15th anniversay celebration of their organisation on 15 October 2010. DAVID MARTINEZ FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2010

FOR THE PAST YEAR, the news from Mexico has been dominated by the extraordinary violence of the country’s ongoing drug war: the death toll in 2010 is now more than 10,000. The police appear to be powerless to rein in the heavily armed narcotics gangs, and may in fact be collaborating with them and participating in the escalating war, which has now submerged the entire country in violence.

One area, however, has resisted the rising tide of conflict. In the green hills of the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, local citizens have assembled their own police force: an indigenous justice system comprised of elected police officers and judges rather than representatives of the state government.

They’re known as La Policia Comunitaria—the Community Police—and they have been operating in Guerrero since 1995, shortly after a brutal period of violence that remains fresh in the memory of everyone who witnessed it.

“It was horrible, the early 1990s,” said Valenciano, a man in his 30s with fierce dark eyes and a slight frame, clutching a well-oiled but ancient M1 carbine. “Women were being raped on the roads between villages, and nobody could travel anywhere, and I mean anywhere, after dark. Those years were absolutely terrible in these parts.”

Valenciano was wearing a faded baseball cap emblazoned with POLICIA COMUNITARIA on the front; the same logo was on his green t-shirt. We were sitting in San Luis Acatlan, Guerrero, the headquarters of La Policia Comunitaria, resting in the shade of some trees. The heat was suffocating and everyone in sight was glistening with sweat. Valenciano fingered the worn wooden stock of his rifle, the same model used by the US Army during the Korean War. “This gun isn’t mine,” he said. “None of our arms belong to us: our weapons belong to the community. When we’re finished with our service, we return our rifles and they are given to the next group of volunteers.”

The violence of the early 1990s provided the impetus for the creation of the Policia Comunitaria, but the process was far from simple. At the time, a priest named Mario, who had recently arrived in the area, began to hold assemblies in all the local villages, in an attempt to organise the residents and confront the problems facing the region.

“At first he spoke to us with his language, the language of concern, but we listened with the ears of indifference,” said Apolonio Hernandez Cruz Rosas, one of the founders of the Policia Comunitaria, who lives in a small town just north of San Luis Acatlan. “In 1992 we held the first village assemblies. We moved them around, from village to village, so that everyone could be involved. We went to the police, the judiciary and the army to ask for them to help us to resolve the problem of the violence and the robberies, but they did nothing.”

After this initial frustration with the authorities, and many more village assemblies, in 1995 the Policia Comunitaria was born. “In the beginning,” said Cirino Placido, one of the organisation’s founders and now a consultant to the group, “what we did was simply to arrest people that we suspected of crimes and to turn them over to the local police. But then, very often, someone would just pay a bribe and the person would be set free.” Creating an autonomous police force had proved insufficient: the justice system remained badly broken. So the assemblies in 1998 opted to create an alternative, called CRAC—the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities.

After various meetings it was decided that people suspected of a crime would be judged by a council of village elders; if found guilty, they would be sentenced to community service rather than prison.

“We were sent to clean up kindergartens, clean up high schools, to remove rocks from the roads,” one man in his late 20s, who asked not to be named, told me. “ The guards would talk to us, and the co-ordinators of La Policia would come and talk to us as well, about why we were there, why we had been sentenced, and what it was all about. That’s better than the regular jail, where you don’t even know why you’re there, and where no one ever comes to talk to you.”

The man in question had been convicted of selling marijuana to a minor and he served two months of community service in two different towns before being set free for good behaviour. “The Policia are good,” he says from behind the street food stall where he now works. “I never felt alone when I was carrying out my sentence, and I’m not going to do it again [sell pot]…there’s people who speak badly about the Policia, but that’s because they don’t know them. They’re a fine organisation.”

What happens when a member of La Policia Comunitaria is accused of a crime? “Then, we consider a harsher punishment,” explains Pablo Guzman, one of the current co-ordinators of the Policia. “They are held to a higher standard, and so we consider a transgression by them to be much graver. If one of them commits a crime, they are punished more than a regular person.” This stands in stark contrast to the practice almost everywhere else in the world, where police officers are invariably given more lenient sentences than civilian criminals.

As we sat in a small taqueria in San Luis Acatlan, Cirino Placido summed up the significance of La Policia. “What is happening here,” he said, as he finished his Coke and the evening light began to fade, “is that the people make demands, and the law obeys. It is an exercise in recuperation, that is, this is a re-taking of what we once had, which is our right to collective decision making.”