Where the People Order and the Law Obeys: The Policía Comunitaria in Guerrero, Mexico

In San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero, Mexico, La Policía Comunitaria, an autonomous police force and justice system, has become something of a legend in Mexico. The idea is simple: local people are elected to act as temporary police officers, and justice is administered by a council of community members, not the local state system. This form of community justice is both an experiment, and a centuries old practice.

I am standing in the damp grass of Oakland’s Frank Oglala plaza, trying not to catch a chill now that the sun is dropping and the temperature with it. There are crowds of people here, gathered for a rally to protest the sentence that was just hours ago meted out to a white policeman who killed a black youth by shooting him in the back…the officer in question was given a paltry two years in jail. Everyone at the demonstration is making the same simple comparison: if the roles were reversed and a black man had shot a white cop in the back, his punishment would be much, much more extreme, perhaps he would even be given the death penalty (we are in “liberal” California, after all).

Thus, a person that society has entrusted with carrying a weapon and who has the weight of the state behind them is given a weaker sentence; they actually have the law applied to them less forcefully than an average citizen.

These thoughts are running around my head as the angry crowd starts to march through downtown Oakland, and a shiver goes through me. It’s not fear or excitement really, it’s just that a few days ago I was in a place that was different in so many ways.  For starters it was blazing hot there and my body is still adjusting to this Bay Area cold…..but more importantly it was a place where the law and the police work very, very differently. In that place, when a police officer is found guilty of a crime, they are punished more harshly, the idea being that a cop should be held to a higher standard.

The place in question is San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero, Mexico, and it is engaged in a form of justice that is a new experiment and at the same time, is centuries old.

San Luis Acatlán is a town of around 35,000 souls, laid out along a long street that stretches between two churches. It lies east along the Pacific coast and inland several miles from glittery Acapulco, its much more well-known neighbor. The rainy season has ended when I arrived there, and a pounding heat has replaced the rain. I’ve come here to find out about a group called La Policía Comunitaria, an autonomous police force and justice system that is something of a legend in Mexico. The idea is simple: local people are elected to act as temporary police officers, and justice is administered by a council of community members, not the local state system. The inspiration for the project arose after a period of violence in the region that everyone who is old enough remembers well, and doesn’t hesitate to describe.

“It was horrible, the early 1990’s,” says Victorio, a man in his thirties 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.”

He tilts back his faded baseball cap emblazoned with POLICÍA COMUNITARIA on the front, the same emblem that is printed on his dull green t-shirt. We are sitting in the shade of some trees outside the small building that serves as the headquarters of the Policía Comunitaria, but the heat is still suffocating and everyone around us is glistening with tropical sweat.

Victorio fingers the worn wooden stock of his rifle, the same model used by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. “This gun isn’t mine….none of our arms belong to us: the 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 Policía Comunitaria evolved out of a response to this plague of violence that Victoriano speaks of. A new priest that had started working in the area, Padre Mario, began holding assemblies of all the local villages, in order to discuss and organize around the many problems facing the inhabitants.

“At first he [Padre Mario] spoke to us with his language, the language of concern… but we listened with the ears of indifference,” says Apolonio Cruz Rosas, one of the founders of the Policía Comunitaria, who lives in a small town up the road to the north from San Luis Acatlán. “In 1992 we held the first village assemblies…and 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 this problem, the problem of the violence and the robberies, but they didn’t do anything.”

And so after this initial frustration with the authorities, and many more village assemblies, in 1995 the Policía Comunitaria, a police force to be made up of volunteers from the villages themselves, was born. There was a long debate as to whether to call themselves La Policía Auxiliada, (The Auxiliary Police), or La Policía Comunitaria, (The Community Police). The former title implied that the villagers would be an extension of the local constabulary, while the latter implied a new form of policing and of justice. After a long night of debating, the new force was christened La Policía Comunitaria.

“In the beginning,” says Cirino Plácido, one of the founders and now currently a consultant to the project, whom I met with in a small taqueria in San Luis, “in the beginning 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. And so we held another assembly of all the communities, and we reached back to our indigenous roots….and the C.R.A.C. was formed, in 1998.”

The C.R.A.C., or the Regional Coordinating Committee of Community Authorities, attempted to take the project of La Policía one step further: they had formed their own police force, but the justice system of the state was just as flawed and inefficient as the official police were. Thus, they now sought to form, and to enforce, their own code of law.

After various meetings it was decided that people suspected of a crime would be judged by a council of village elders, elected like the Policía, and then if they were found guilty they would be sentenced not to prison but to a form of community service, which the C.R.A.C. called “re-education”. The sentence would always be carried out in a village other than one’s own, in order to avoid the difficulty of a person being held prisoner by their own neighbors.

“What we are engaged in here is a recuperation of what was once ours, the right to collective decision making,” explains Cirino further over ice cold sodas that taste heavenly in the heat of the day. “This project is an exercise in the collective rights of the people, and it is a horizontal vision, as opposed to a vertical one.”

At 53 years old, Cirino has been involved in organizing since 1992, when he got involved with the 500 Years of Resistance campaign that was happening all over Latin America on the eve of the anniversary of Columbus’s landing. He’s never been a member of a political party and describes his own political trajectory as one which has always taken him “downwards”, towards the base, away from the top. “For this reason,” he says, “I know the Mexico that’s not on television, the other Mexico.”

His on-the-ground experience in organizing towards difficult goals like safety and justice gives him a very critical view of political projects that don’t have to withstand the same tests.

He leans towards me and his eyes gleam with pride at the many years he has put into this project. “Look,” he says, “there are many thinkers, many writers, many people who have very beautiful ideas about how to re-imagine the world. But the problem is that they can’t put them into practice, and to me it is because they don’t have the right foundation; their foundation is weak. We always engage in practice, our theories always involve practice. We always keep practice and theory in play with each other, and our theory comes from the same people who practice it: the indigenous people of Guerrero.”

The next day the room I am renting in San Luis runs out of water, and so I climb to the roof to fill the water tank from a hose. It is scorching hot up there and the sky is a dry and fiery blue above me. The heat tries to absorb all sounds but still, the town manages to be noisy. The same car drives around the streets as every other day, blaring the same announcement for home delivery of tortillas from a cheap speaker welded to its roof. A boy on a motorbike dodges holes in the pavement and honks his electric horn that makes the same annoying sound as a car alarm. And an old and very withered man sits in a patch of shade and plays a tune on an accordion over and over, even though there are no passersby to give him any tips.

In other words, it’s a town like countless others in Mexico. And so why, I can’t help but ask myself as I wipe the sweat out of my eyes and wait for the water tank to fill, why is it here that something like the Policía Comunitaria has happened?

Perhaps it’s something about Guerrero itself, the region, the state. This is not a place where these ideas merely fall out of the sky; it’s a state where teachers become armed guerrillas. The most prominent example in San Luis Acatlán is Genaro Vasquez, a former teacher from this same town who formed a guerrilla organization called The National Revolutionary Civic Association that carried out several operations in the 1960’s and 70’s, most famously kidnapping a Coca Cola executive and releasing him only when nine political prisoners had been freed and granted asylum in Cuba. Genaro was eventually caught in the same town he was born in, while fleeing a car accident, and was either killed or died of his wounds while in police custody. Today there is a high school in San Luis that bears his name, and supporters of the Policía sport t-shirts with his image. Genaro Vázquez is a local hero and a political antecedent of the Policía Comunitaria.

“It’s in our blood,” explained Dr. Jorge Vázquez, a nephew of Genaro the legendary guerrilla. “The blood of our ancestors and of our family. We want to change people, to promote a change over all of society, to take the ideas of The Policía Comunitaria and extend them to areas of health and poverty, and to include these problems as part of our goals.”

He went on to tell me of a newly-founded indigenous women’s health center in San Luis that is due to open in December of 2010. Jorge and others in town have bigger visions, beyond just setting up the Policía as a security force. They want to take the idea to the next level, and using the Policía as a model and a starting point, to tackle the problems of health, poverty, and education.

Indeed, as the Mexican state flails about in the midst of a violent drug-war that it can barely contain, much less win, this experiment, this “recuperation” that is the Policía Comunitaria and the C.R.A.C. may prove to be more valuable than at first glance. Especially from the vantage point of the United States, which boasts the highest prison population on the planet, a model of justice that seeks not to ostracize but to re-integrate the convicted person, strikes a strong chord.

I wanted to meet someone who had actually been through the Policía Comunitaria’s “re-education” program, and after some asking around I was introduced to a man in his 30’s who worked as a street vendor and who asked not to be named.

“We were sent to clean up kindergartens, clean up high schools, to remove rocks from the roads…” explains the man, “and while we were in the re-education, the guards would talk to us, and the coordinators of La Policía would come and talk to us as well, about why we’re 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 was 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 behavior.

“They Policía are good,” he says, from behind his stall, many people around here talk bad about them, but that’s because they don’t know them. 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 Policía, but that’s because they don’t know them. They’re a fine organization.”

One of the reasons that the prisoners are talked to while engaged in their “re-education” is a simple matter of self-preservation on the part of the individuals working as Policía Comunitaria. After all, they are not professional police officers, and after their stint is done they will return to being ordinary farmers like everyone else. People told me that sometimes prisoners would in the past threaten their guards, saying “When this is all over, I’m going to find you and kill you.” Thus, the guards talking and befriending the prisoners is also a way of ensuring that there are no hard feelings when the prisoner leaves, and so usually the people being re-educated leave as friends with the very people who are guarding them.

And what happens when a member of La Policía Comunitaria themselves are accused of a crime? “Then, we consider a harsher punishment,” explains Pablo Guzman, one of the current coordinadores of the Policía, and who holds responsibility for the kinds of sentences that are meted out. “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 United States and countless other countries, where police officers are judged in the opposite fashion – they are punished less strictly – when having committed an offense.

As states across the world find themselves strapped for resources, and broad swaths of humanity discover that they are for all intents and purposes living in a world without law and without government, perhaps projects like La Policía Comunitaria and the C.R.A.C. provide a way forward, an example for people to follow when facing the same grave problems as the people of rural Guerrero faced fifteen years ago. The project of the C.R.A.C. – P.C. is not perfect, by any means, and no-one involved would ever say they were. But one thing is certain: crime in the area has decreased over 90%, and if anything, the difficulty now is in getting people to remain involved when the problems are seemingly over. And so, in the medium term at least, La Policía Comunitaria has succeeded. One can travel freely between towns, even after dark, and everyone says that they feel much safer than in the past. As violence ravages other regions of Mexico, at least the municipalities that participate in the Policía Comunitaria can find some sense of safety when they sleep at night.