|English | Español||September 23, 2017 | Issue #67|
Community Police in Guerrero’s Costa Chica Region to Celebrate 19 Years of a Better Way to Combat Crime and Corruption
The Same Southern Mexican State Where 43 Students Were Disappeared Is also Home to a Grassroots Movement that Shows How People Can Police Themselves When the State Becomes Criminal
By Greg Berger and Oscar Olivera
Entering San Luis Acatlan
The Costa Chica has a long and sad history of violence and inequality. Relations among the state’s various ethnic groups have not always been harmonious, and many hot, tense mornings such as these have ended in tragedy. There have been several massacres by police and military forces against civilians, some well documented, others barely known to the public.
But what was happening on this morning was no standoff, and what was occurring was far from a tragedy. Despite the tension in the air, the mood was relaxed, and some people were doubled over in stitches, laughing and telling jokes to each other.
The officers who stood among the civilians were from an extraordinary police force. The plot of land where they stood is the site of the “House of Justice” of the town of San Luis Acatlan, home to the community police force known as the Regional Coordinating Committee of Community Authorities – Community Police, the CRAC-PC for its initials in Spanish.
This all-volunteer police force has nearly eradicated crime in the region, performing civic functions that official government police forces in the rest of the state have been unwilling or unable to do. The 80 civilians present had been sent by their communities to form a civilian buffer to protect the House of Justice and the community police from seizure by an opposing group allegedly allied with the state government. Ordinary people had arrived not to confront the police, but to protect them.
It is not very often that unarmed civilians organize themselves to defend the police. But the CRAC-PC is no ordinary police force. These officers carry low-caliber weapons for police work that fire buck shot barely capable of downing a bird from a tree. The power of this movement does not reside in their tools. It comes from the organization, the resolve, and the discipline of its civilian support base. And it comes from a collective effort to rehabilitate violent criminals through community work projects.
It is a project that has been built slowly and firmly over the course of many years.
We went to the “House of Justice” in San Luis Acatlan to talk to members of the organization’s civilian support base. It is a place where representatives of communities that participate in the CRAC-PC come to meet, debate, and make decisions.
The CRAC-PC was founded on October 15, 1995, at a time when crime rates had soared to intolerable heights throughout the indigenous communities of the mountainous Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico. But Armando Zavala, a longtime supporter of the CRAC-PC, believes that the foundations for this experiment in self-governance were laid years earlier, when indigenous communities throughout Mexico organized to disrupt the 500th anniversary celebration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.
Don Armando was one of the organizers of a Mixtec indigenous delegation that traveled to Mexico City. Many tens of thousands of indigenous people from more than 50 of Mexico’s ethnic groups convened on the nation’s capital.
“The State of Guerrero was one of the most organized, with one of the largest delegations in the event. We brought 20 of our best brass bands with us,” he recalls.
As a result of the indigenous convergence, President Salinas de Gortari was forced to cancel several events. The Guerrero delegation returned to their communities better organized than they had been before. “That is why we were able to build the community police,” he says. “There was a solid and organized base of people, Tlaponecs, Mixtecs, and also mixed race and Afro-Mexican people.”
The organized towns of the Costa Chica had a long list of concerns that required the new police force’s attention. But in the mid-1990s, dealing with intolerable crime and corruption was the most urgent priority.
Guadalupe Garcia, a coordinator of Sustainable Development for the CRAC-PC, remembers how the CRAC-PC was founded in his hometown of Cuanacastitlan, not far from San Luis Acatlan. “You couldn’t take your crops or merchandise anywhere, because criminals would rob you and the government police would not do anything. Women were raped, and people began to keep their doors shut.”
Civilian Support Base of the Community Police
Cuanacastitlan soon had its own team of civilian police. Another community followed, and soon there were five communities with their own police. In 1995 the new civilian police agencies unified their efforts and established the House of Justice in San Luis Acatlan. However, the birth of the new organization led to new challenges.
“We asked ourselves, what should we do with the criminals we catch?” says Don Guadalupe. When they handed them over to the government police, they would pay a bribe and be set free. So they held an assembly to determine what to do.
“There were people that wanted to burn them alive, but in the public assembly we decided that we had to look for a way to teach these people to work for the good of the community, and to realize that what they were doing was wrong.” Instead of punishment, the assembly opted for a system of restorative justice.
“What would happen if we were able to train prisoners to dig wells, collect rainwater, plant organic vegetables, and use the Internet to find new markets for their crops?” wondered Don Guadalupe. “That way they can feed themselves when they are released.”
Figuring out the rules to the community justice system led to more questions: “What should be the rules for the reeducation process? How long should the prisoners be kept?”
The people in the towns now known as “communal territory” created formal rules for their system. They named representatives from each community, and gradually a formal democratic structure to govern the CRAC-PC began to take shape. Local coordinators listened to new ideas and discussed them with regional representatives. The ideas that were approved by these authorities were discussed in regional assemblies in which the entire population was invited to attend.
Through this process, the CRAC-PC also created rules for selecting and training police officers. Each community elects its own police officers for a designated term. Officers receive no salary or formal compensation. Although women have been active participants in the creation of the CRAC-PC’s system, all officers are still men, for now. Officers patrol the countryside, but also have personnel at the Houses of Justice in each community to respond to emergencies or to hear and resolve conflicts. Corruption is not tolerated, and violators are subject to the same detention and re-education process as other criminals.
Many of the CRAC-PC’s duties involve solving complex social problems that affect the community. One legal advisor to the CRAC-PC told us of a community alongside a river suffering from high rates of alcoholism and domestic violence. The local coordinators decided to ban sales of alcohol in the town. But local residents in search of a drink simply waded across the river and bought liquor at the neighboring village. On one occasion, a drunken man was drowned on his way back from a beer run. So the CRAC-PC’s local coordinators lifted the ban on alcohol and instead levied a tax on alcohol sales and focused its efforts on preventing domestic violence and public drunkenness.
While out on patrol, Community Police Officers carry guns, which has led some people to think that the CRAC-PC is an armed movement. The women and men we spoke to were emphatic about not using weapons as a means of direct confrontation. “The government is one thing and we are another thing,” says Don Armando. “Parallel, but different. But the ones that should confront the government are civilians, not the community police. Because that might turn into a war, and wars never end.”
During its first years of existence, the results were quick and effective. Towns within “communal territory” saw crime drop dramatically. “More and more communities joined because people saw crime go down as much as 80 percent,” says Don Guadalupe, as he remembers a famous foreign national who could not boast of accomplishments like theirs. “The government in Mexico City invited that mayor from New York, what was his name…Giuliani? And he had to run away because he could not do it. Instead of bringing people like that to Mexico they should recognize what the CRAC-PC has done.”
Threatened and embarrassed by the emergence of a parallel public safety apparatus in Guerrero, the state government has repeatedly threatened to dismantle the civilian project. But the massive support and citizen participation in the CRAC-PC has made such intervention a political risk that ultimately, no state governor has been willing, or able, to take.
In fact, the CRAC-PC worked with a team of legal advisors who crafted a law asserting that Guerrero’s indigenous communities, including Afro-Mexicans, possessed a legitimate right to self-governance. Over time, the CRAC-PC’s legal team built a consensus of lawmakers willing to support the initiative. Since its passage in 2009, Guerrero’s Article 701 has provided a legal shield that protects the CRAC-PC’s right to exist in the eyes of the law.
Members of the CRAC-PC’s civilian support base are unabashed about questioning the legitimacy of the Guerrero state government, and yet their legal team has managed to craft a state law that allows them to build their own parallel government. As one civilian CRAC-PC supporter put it, it is part of a strategy of “indirect, not direct, resistance and confrontation.”
During Felipe Calderon’s presidency, the Mexican federal government accelerated its so-called “War on Drugs” with disastrous results. Several high-ranking members of drug trafficking organizations were killed or detained; yet the flow of drugs was unaffected. The disruption in the chain of command had serious and adverse consequences for ordinary Mexican citizens. Criminal organizations ramped up alternative economic activities such as kidnapping and extortion to compensate for their losses. Guerrero was one of the states hardest hit by the resulting boom in criminal activities, but regions where the CRAC-PC operated were largely spared from the epidemic.
In fact, what the CRAC-PC calls “community territory” swelled in size during this time, as new towns and villages searched for a way to control the crime surge. By the beginning of 2013 over 100 communities were affiliated with the CRAC, with five regional “Houses of Justices” coordinating the activities of the civilian police force. Paradoxically, the CRAC-PC’s success led to a series of events which now pose serious challenges to its future.
In January 2013, reporters from national and international press rushed to Guerrero in search of a sensational new headline which had suddenly become fashionable to cover. New so-called “self-defense groups,” unaffiliated with the CRAC-PC were appearing in the central region of the state. On the surface, their objectives seemed similar to the CRAC-PC’s: patrol roads and communities and provide justice when the state could not.
Journalists from commercial and state media outlets were sent to capture photos of the new self-defense offices posing in baklavas with high-powered rifles. And the young men in the ranks of these new groups were more than willing to oblige. The boom in coverage of Guerrero’s rural communities brought increased coverage to the CRAC-PC’s community territory, but very little of that coverage distinguished the community police from the self-defense groups.
For Don Guadalupe, the difference is clear. “The self-defense groups only fight crime with guns and violence in whatever place along the road they might find it. The CRAC-PC is about building a movement in the community.”
Throughout the media boom that has followed, some journalists have talked about the CRAC-PC and the self-defense groups interchangeably, referring to the CRAC-PC as a “self-defense group” and making no mention of the citizen assemblies, self-governance project, and system of restorative justice that gives substance to the organization.
Since then, articles on the self-defense groups in Guerrero appeared in international news outlets from The New York Times to Al Jazeera. They gradually became more and more sensationalist, posting pictures of armed men in pickup trucks with headlines such as “Vigilantes on the March in Guerrero” (The New York Times) or “Mexico’s Militia Movement” and “Vigilantes Prowl Guerrero” (Al Jazeera).
Most articles appearing in so-called alternative media in Mexico also tend to fixate on images of armed men. Don Guadalupe became annoyed by the legions of reporters trying to portray the CRAC-PC as something it was not.
“Many people came here and thought they were going to find ‘Rambo,’” he says. “And anyway I don’t understand why the idea of Rambo is so interesting that they would come here to see it. But we’re just simple, community people.”
For nearly two decades the CRAC-PC fought crime without the aid of the government, with scant coverage of their actions beyond the State of Guerrero. The self-defense groups in Guerrero and neighboring Michoacan have catapulted citizens’ efforts to fight crime into the headlines, without telling the story of the community policing movement that preceded the newer organizations.
Oscar Olivera (co-author) speaks to a member of the CRAC
The CRAC-PC is also in the midst of resolving a serious internal dispute over the leadership of the “House of Justice” in San Luis Acatlan. Internal political conflicts are an inevitable part of any political organization, and the CRAC-PC has already gone through, and prevailed, through its own share of internal strife.
Don Armando believes that this current internal conflict, as well as the creation of new self-defense organizations, has been orchestrated by the state government to divide the CRAC-PC. This same sentiment was echoed among all the women and men of the House of Justice in San Luis Acatlan with whom we spoke.
Many of them believe that the motivation for dividing the town are the more than 50 mining concessions in indigenous territory that the federal government has awarded to transnational companies since 2010.
Although they have no smoking gun to prove it, supporters of the CRAC-PC are convinced that the government is launching a strategy of “divide and conquer” to facilitate the arrival of foreign mining companies. In Mexico, underground mineral deposits are considered property of the federal government, and their authority to grant mining concessions supersedes, in theory, the rights of those who possess private and communal property on the surface. Among the mining companies to whom the federal government has given mining concessions in Guerrero are the Canadian companies Gold Corp. and Frallon Mining. All of the communities affiliated with the CRAC-PC have rejected outright the possibility of allowing mining to occur in their territory. The arrival of mining industries in other parts of the state has led to massive contamination and disrupted traditional agriculture. The effective operational structure of the CRAC-PC and its parallel governmental functions make it the only organization capable of halting the arrival of mining interests.
“That’s why the government is so interested in dismantling the community police,” says Don Armando.
The CRAC-PC has also been increasingly willing to intervene in cases of high-level political corruption, and has even arrested the mayors of small towns and other elected officials. Some civilian CRAC-PC supporters suggested that the state government is worried that the CRAC-PC will be increasingly capable of exposing corruption within even higher levels of government
For Don Guadalupe, Don Armando, and the other men and women that warmly received us at the House of Justice, the lessons of their broad struggle also yield lessons for their daily lives. The fight to maintain the CRAC-PC has taught them to face down apathy, fear, and resignation, and transform those feelings into hope, action, and strength.
Don Armando always has a smile on his lips. He speaks as clearly and as elegantly as running water. His wide-brimmed sombrero emits a sense of protection and strength, as he reminds us that it was nothing less than 500 years of injustice that obliged his community to learn how to protect itself and rebuild peace. Perhaps their first task was something that might have been too great to accomplish. But they did accomplish it, and now it is incumbent upon them to rebuild the fabric of day-to-day living.
He tells us, “We have to talk about building a different kind of development in our communities, on our planet, to prevent destruction.” His words describe, with absolute clarity, what some people have called “revolution,” or “socialism,” or simply, “good living.”
Oscar Olivera (co-author) with two founding members of the CRAC
“We lack resources,” says Don Guadalupe, with his serious and stern look. But he also explains enthusiastically about his community’s attempt to rediscover natural agriculture, without chemicals or fertilizers. “We are re-learning everything.” He and his wife explain to us how everyone in his community is taking on new skills, as mechanics, irrigation specialists, carpenters, doctors, and students of life itself. They tell us about their numerous new projects.
At the end of our conversation, Don Guadalupe says “We’ve fought against crime and violence in our communities. Now we have to fight against hunger.” These words describe the true long-term goals of the CRAC-PC, to take on collective tasks that face not only their community, but countless others in Mexico and Latin America. He speaks not only of the hunger of the body, but of the spirit, a thirst for justice, liberty, for mutual trust, and for hope.
With these simple words, and a gaze resting somewhere between their territory and the horizon ahead, the women and men of the CRAC-PC are building a plan and an agenda. Their idea of living well cannot be found by following a simple plan or recipe, but through a daily process of resistance and rebuilding.
They know intuitively that the road ahead will be long and will not be easy, but they also know it will be worth it. They have already accomplished much, and will most certainly be able to address some of their most urgent needs: Rebuilding unity within their organization, consolidating their plans for development, becoming autonomous in their financial resources, and establishing better communication with their supporters. They also must reinforce their system of direct democracy for transparency and reporting, debate and deliberation, and for making decisions and acting on them.
They are convinced that one of their greatest battles still lies ahead. It will not be easy to take on the alliance of large transnational mining companies and their allies in all levels of government. Maintaining unity as these forces attempt to sow divisions is another task that the CRAC-PC has told us they need to take on.
In San Luis Acatlan, and in all of Guerrero, the struggle continues to reconstruct and rebuild the commons — to recover land, water, and also the voice and will of the people to make decisions vital to their own destiny.
“Our people have made this project their own,” one person told us, “which is the most important thing of all.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism