I am standing in the damp grass of Oakland’s Frank Oglala Plaza, trying not 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. 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 Acatlan, 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 1990s," says Victorio, 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."
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 organise 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, "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 CRAC was formed, in 1998."
The CRAC, 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 CRAC 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 organising 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 experience in organising 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."
This is the first installment of a two-part report by David Martinez on the Policía Communitaria of Guerrero.
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