Campesino Justice

A Mexican experiment that went too well

guerrero state — It began in 1995 with a horrible crime. Outside of the village of Hidalgo, in Mexico’s fiery orange Sierra Madre del Sur, a thirteen-year-old girl was gang-raped as she returned from work in the fields. Members of her community travelled to the nearest town to report the assault, only to have police delays allow the criminals to escape. The girl died several days later.

It was a familiar pattern. By the mid-nineties, the government had all but abandoned the region’s mostly indigenous inhabitants to roaming thugs who stole livestock, held up labourers, and assaulted women. The bandits even set up regular checkpoints on the roads. “We used wait in line for them to rip us off,” the driver of a local bus recalls.

But even for people accustomed to being victims, the young girl’s rape and murder was too much to bear. Outraged, Hidalgo residents invited surrounding communities to a meeting. Many called for revenge, but over several days of discussions a different solution emerged. They formed an organization called the Community Police, elected officers from among their ranks, and armed them with old Remington hunting rifles. At first a coalition of thirty-six communities, the CP grew as word spread and the crime wave continued.

Nearby Miahuichán didn’t join soon enough for Claudio Erasto, a middle-aged campesino with callused hands and sinewy muscles from a life of agricultural work. A few months before another rape prompted Erasto’s hometown to sign on, three men with pistols ambushed him on his way to market. After stealing the fifty pesos he was carrying, more than a week’s wages, the thieves made him walk along the dirt road while one of them lashed him with a stick. Erasto says that when he tried to report the crime, an officer told him, “Fifty pesos is nothing. If you want your money back, find some more work.”

Today, Erasto is helping prevent similar attacks as a member of the homegrown force. He is one of the more than 600 officers governed by sixty-five indigenous communities in Guerrero, whose collective strength has wrested control of the region from criminal gangs. But increasing government suspicion and, paradoxically, the CP’s own success are undermining the force’s hard-earned gains and threatening its survival.

Early victories earned the CP the government’s support. The state trained its first batch of officers, provided twenty rifles, and even encouraged towns like Miahuichán to join. In return, the CP handed offenders over to state authorities. But in 1999, the group established its own institutions for judging and imprisoning criminals, claiming that too many were bribing their way out of a corrupt state system. The state responded by cutting off all support, and ever since the CP has struggled financially. Resources are now so scarce that when a wanted criminal was recently spotted in an outlying community, officers couldn’t afford the gas to pursue him.

Alberto Salgado Gómez says the government stopped funding the CP not to wipe them out but to make them co-operate with the state justice system. The towering figure with slicked-back grey hair is the secretary general for San Luis Acatlán, a municipality that’s home to many of the CP’s participating villages. “In one organization you have all the functions: the arrest, the evidence, the judging, and the condemnation,” he says, pounding his desk for emphasis. “That simply cannot happen.” Flipping through a binder filled with the names and photographs of CP officers (which the communities willingly provide), Gómez says that while the government could disarm them by force, “we want to give them a legal way out: they can arrest and detain criminals, but they cannot judge them.”

Gómez oversees everything from public security to land disputes from his office in San Luis’s Municipal Palace, a neoclassical fortress that stretches the length of the town square. The rear windows of the palace overlook the local jail, where steel fences and spirals of barbed wire surround a block of more than a dozen cells. Gómez warns that too much leniency with the CP could be dangerous. “We’re dealing with an army,” he says, “poorly armed, poorly dressed, and poorly fed — but an army nonetheless.” He leans forward and lowers his voice. “The people here are simple people, susceptible to leaders who manipulate them. If organized, they could really put us up against the wall.”

Little more than a kilometre from the palace, CP headquarters looks like a junkyard. A rusted red pickup truck sits on blocks, its tail transformed into a makeshift chicken coop. A low-slung yellow building painted with the words respect for our rights is justice sits opposite a corrugated tin roof sheltering a gas stove and a few picnic tables. A handful of CP leaders are congregated in the shade.”

The government doesn’t understand that the communities are the bosses — not us,” says Abad Flores Herrera, a coffee and cocoa farmer in his sixties. And according to Herrera, they like their independent courts and laws, which reflect indigenous customs. Cases are judged by a panel of six community members with no legal training, and lawyers are banned. To earn back community trust, convicts work on local projects like repairing roads and building classrooms.

Sitting next to Herrera is Valentín Hernández, who helped develop the parallel justice system and is now a key adviser. Despite the government’s harsh rhetoric, Hernández says, the CP faces little resistance from the state police, and the two sometimes even collaborate. The greater threat comes from the communities themselves — their commitment has waned now that crime is down. For the first time, some men are refusing to serve as volunteer officers, while villages occasionally neglect their duty to feed CP prisoners. “This system takes work,” Hernández says, “and people are tired.”

Stationed in an old plastic chair outside Miahuichán’s town jail, Remington in his lap, Claudio Erasto guards a single cell filled with nine men whose crimes range from defacing a statue of the Virgin Mary to wife beating. The local CP commander, Apolinar Cristin, stands by his side, casting a sideways glance at the prisoners. Erasto is serving his last days as a community policeman after five years on the force. At a recent town assembly, Miahuichán elected ten new officers, most of whom are a generation younger than Erasto and his fellow lawmen.

Erasto wonders aloud whether the new officers, who didn’t suffer through the violence of days past, will even bother to show up for duty. “The problem,” Cristin says, speaking for the first time, “is that people aren’t afraid anymore.”

Nik Steinberg