Keeping The Community Safe


This is the second part of a report by David Martinez on the Policía Communitaria of Guerrero. Read the first installment here

The next day the room I am renting in San Luis runs out of water, and 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 I can’t help but ask myself as I wait for the water tank to fill, why did the Policía Comunitaria happen here?

Perhaps it’s something about Guerrero itself, the region, the state. This is not a place where 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 organisation called the National Revolutionary Civic Association that carried out several operations in the 1960s and 70s, 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," explains Dr. Jorge Vázquez, one of Genaro’s nephews. 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 tellsl me of a newly-founded indigenous women’s health centre 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 CRAC 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 ostracise 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 30s who worked as a street vendor. He 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 were 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 behaviour.

"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 organisation."

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 the Policía Comunitaria is accused of a crime? "Then, we consider a harsher punishment," explains Pablo Guzmán, 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 swathes of humanity discover that they are for all intents and purposes living in a world without law and without government, perhaps projects like the Policía Comunitaria and the CRAC. 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 CRAC-PC 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 per cent, 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.

This is the second part of a report by David Martinez on the Policía Communitaria of Guerrero. Read the first installment here

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