Self-defense Groups and Community Police Forces in Mexico: Differences as Seen from the Villages

Salvador Campunar, a Purhépecha Indian comunero, Claudio Carrasco of the Guerrero Community Police Force, and Guillermo Hernandez, a member of the Tepoztlán community, explain that community justice systems, rooted in ancient traditions, essentially respond to the village councils. They also comment that they act as part of a more complex system of autonomy for the villages, whereas vigilante autodefensas, self-defense forces, act on behalf of private groups.

Source: Desinformémonos

Mexico “If the fight is to gain freedom, it is welcome. But if it is to incite fear and terror, then it is a warning that paramilitarism is at our door or on its way,” says Salvador Campunar, a Purhépecha Indian comunero (co-proprietor of communal land). Campanur, Claudio Carrasco of the Guerrero Community Police Force and Guillermo Hernandez, a member of the Tepoztlán community, explain that community justice systems, rooted in ancient traditions, essentially respond to the village councils. They also comment that they act as part of a more complex system of autonomy for the villages, whereas vigilante autodefensas, self-defense forces, act on behalf of private groups.

Referring to the successes in Michoacán, where self-defense groups are fighting to force out the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel (“The Knights Templar), Salvador Campanur, a member of the Cherán community – where the height of the movement for autonomy began in 2011 with a community vigilante group and the expulsion of the loggers – highlights that the situation in an indigenous community is different to a city or an ejido (a communally farmed area of land). However, he stresses that they respect the decisions taken by each community in their path towards freedom, “and we cannot tell them to do things the way we do them.”

“Community vigilance”, explains Guillermo Hernández Chapa, a Tepoztlán community member, “is the answer to a community’s plan for autonomy, where villages regard security as part of their development as a whole”.

Self-defense and community practices

Salvador Campanur warns that in the indigenous communities, they are not only fighting for their own security, but also against all forms of intervention, such as against extraction projects which “divide communities, families and residents”.

For Claudio Carrasco, a member of the Guerrero Community Police Force, some of the differences between his organisation and the self-defense groups belonging to the Union of Towns and Organisations in the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), “is that they are groups which do not apply the law, they do not respond to village councils and they pass captives onto the official authorities.”

Carrasco, a Mephaá Indian, explains that they want to operate like the Community Police but they do not have the people nor the experience to investigate all those arrested for the crimes they commit. “For that reason it is said they employ torture and set criminals free,” he points out.

In Morelos, the self-defense system has not developed as it has in Michoacán and Guerrero, Guillermo Hernández explains. He emphasizes that, “what we recognise as self-defense groups are those that answer to specific groups and not to community councils.”  For example, in Metepec, the avocado-producing landowners formed their own defense groups to protect their produce, but they were not approved by a community council of any sort.

Another difference, a co-proprietor from Tepoztlán explains, is that, “the self-defense groups enter into an agreement with the government authorities while the community forces often do not because they do not seek government recognition, since they respond solely to resolutions agreed at community council meetings.”

The birth of the community police

Both comuneros (co-proprietors of communal farm land) and indigenous people agree that even before the Mexican Revolution, security and justice had been in the hands of the villages. “Before the army arrived in the Americas, the traditional guard force already existed.”

On April 15, 2011, tired of repeated extortion, assassinations, and illegal logging in its forests, the town of Cherán rose up armed with sticks, stones and machetes. Before the community security force in the Purhépecha area was formed, “we had to experience the way we were treated by the government and political parties, see our community divided and experience the impact of organised crime,” Campanur recalls. In a community, when you want to organize, confront and enforce, that is when the knowledge and wisdom of our elders emerges and in that lies our foundations.”

The residents of Cherán say that they own an area of land, “which is our home and which we must defend. It is how the defense of land which we inherited from our elders first emerged,” the Purhépecha comunero recalls. Later, lands were protected from the “bad” who, they accuse, were backed by armed groups and the military, by organising patrols and campfires. That was how they maintained control of their lands and later they held elections according to their customs and traditions which had to be recognised by the Mexican electoral institutions.

Community policing in Cherán provides security for approximately twenty-thousand inhabitants and reaches out over 27,000 hectares of communal land.

In a traditional patrol, Salvador Campanur explains, “there is no recruitment process to decide who can and cannot be integrated into the force. It is the duty of all children, teenagers, adults and the elderly,” who do not receive a salary.

In the Guerrero Costa Chica y Montaña, the Coast and Mountain region, the Regional Coordinator of the Community Authorities – Community Police (CRAC-PC) security, justice and re-education system has already been running for eighteen years. Claudio Carrasco, a Mepháa representative, indicates that, “Patrol forces are chosen at a general community council meeting. It is the town that must choose the fourteen officers and first and second deputies who will protect them.” The police commander and the coordinators are elected at a regional assembly, where the communities meet.

Mephaá, Ñu savi, Ñancue ñomdaa, Afromestiza and Mestiza indigenous communities join together to form CRAC. “We have an internal regulatory structure and no one has the authority to bypass  the system. It is respected as long as the regional council does not change,” explains Carrasco.

In Costa Chica y Montaña, a drug-trafficking and growing region, organized crime groups such as the Los Pelones cartel (“The Bald Ones”) or the Cartel Independiente (“The Independent Cartel”) are active. In 2012, community members confiscated arms, trucks, and drugs from one of these cartels.

Claudio Carrasco, former coordinator and current director of CRAC, reminds us that with the justice system, “we were working well and were growing, and then suddenly, the mining companies arrived and the self-defense conflict was created.” The director explains how they blocked the companies from advancing on their lands and as a result the government attempted to divide CRAC, “it began to divide and from there emerged the self-defense groups,” who tried to take control of the justice system.

“The self-defense groups emerged spontaneously, in such words. There was no project. What we do know is that the government encourages and supports them, but we do not know to what end,” warns the director of CRAC.

In the state of Morelos, the birthplace of historical leaders such as Emiliano Zapata, Ruben Jaramillo, Florencio “Güero” Medrano and Félix Medrano, some regions still have community police or rondas campesinas, “peasant patrols”.

Community security practices were strengthened by the Jaramillista movement, explains Hernández Chapa. “In the seventies there was a judge in charge of community peace and resolving internal problems, but the institution of the national justice system removed the position. In the eighties, problems were still resolved at a community level,” Hernández Chapa describes.

The guards were called “veintenas” (scores), because the indigenous people worked for twenty-four days at a time. What happened was that the governmental authorities began to pay for community security services and the communities began to incorporate as auxiliary forces in the local government. This is how security practices in some communities were harmed, Hernández Chapa explains.

The Ocotepec community is the first to have its community security system recognised by the state, above the Municipal Law. In 2013, due to violence and burglaries, the municipality of Temoac decided to reestablish its community police force. The communities appointed a commander and twelve people who would be in charge of security. In some cases, the guards have arrested government workers to force them to respond to communities.

The patrols remain semi-clandestine, explains Guillermo Hernández Chapa of Tepoztlán, because   their policing activities led to clashes with the local authorities. “To be an authority, including a patrol force, you must have fulfilled other roles,” he adds.

Campanur indicates that in Cherán their struggle and response was reactionary and they cannot tell other communities how to take action, “Primarily we want to respect each town and each autonomy,” he stresses. “We cannot tell them to act as we did. We respect their autonomy and way of thinking. If the path to freedom is the one they are taking, we respect that and we also ask them to respect the steps we are taking in our own community”, clarifies the Purhépecha Indian.

Author Jaime Quintana Guerrero sits on the editorial board of Desinformémonos.