Headless bodies pile up outside shopping centres, busloads of tourists disappear only to be later dug out of mass graves and politicians are brutally beaten into comas. Welcome to Guerrero, one of the most brutal states in Mexico, even before drug violence slashed its way through its resort city of Acapulco. Poppy fields, drug trafficking and police and army brutality are emblematic of this turbulent region.
In the green hills of the very same state, the region of San Luis Acatlan is basking in the heat of a long, warm afternoon. Old men talk quietly outside a village store. Inside a child snoozes in a hammock as his grandmother sells soft drinks to young girls passing by. Housewives gather to gossip around steaming pots of boiling corn on the cob and a turkey scratches around the village square. It seems a far cry from the violence erupting in many other parts of Guerrero.
The key to the calm lies within the village hall. Inside many men sit or stand with their rifles hanging from their shoulders or resting on their knees. Their only uniform is a green t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Community Police". Practically the whole village has also turned out for the meeting. It is the monthly "General Assembly" of the CRAC, the indigenous community police force that provides law and order in the mountain villages of Guerrero.
A violent past
Fifteen years ago, things were very different. Catalina Hernandez Martinez is sitting with her friends, enjoying the afternoon heat outside her house. She remembers the violence of the mid-1990s in these hills.
"Before they robbed your cow, your goat, they assaulted you. The state police would arrest someone and then he would give them a bit of money and would be allowed to escape. If the family had money, the police didn’t listen to you."
Brutal bouts of violence, kidnappings, rape and assault had engulfed the region by 1995. Villagers say that, far from providing protection, local government police more often acted with criminals, releasing those that the villagers had helped to detain.
These poor indigenous villages are easy prey for bandits. Isolated and ignored by the state government, they were left to fend for themselves against an ongoing crime wave.
Finally the villagers decided that enough was enough. They voted for the formation of a new police force, formed from the community that worked for the community.
Listening to the elders
Members of this new police force are chosen by the village elders. Once chosen, service is obligatory and unpaid. The practice reaches back to the ancient pre-hispanic Mexican custom in which every man must serve his village for a time in a role that the elders of the village choose.
The police have rifles and radios but little transport.
The penitentiary system is simple. Those found guilty of crimes are forced to work for the community, digging ditches, building bridges or roads during the day, before sleeping in their cells in the evening. Food is provided by the families of the prisoners.
This process of "re-education" involves talks by village elders in which they attempt to make prisoners recognise their errors and their impact on the community. They are released only when it is judged by the village elders that their conduct has changed and they are ready for a role in society again.
Three villages adopted the programme to start with. Local NGO La Montaña Tlachinolla says that by 2000 the project had lowered crime by 90 per cent. Now there are more than 60 villages in the region patrolled by a total of 650 community policemen. The project is still growing as neighbouring indigenous communities see the success it has enjoyed.
Troubles with the state
|Detainees wear t-shirts with the message 'I am being re-educated' [Credit: Javier Verdin]
However, the first years were difficult. La Montaña Tlachinolla says that the state police reacted by imprisoning the leaders in 2000 for crimes, including rape, which were never proved. When an armed standoff then ensued, the tension reached breaking point.
Relations have subsequently thawed. Jose Bautista, the regional commander of the state police in the Costa Chica now attends the monthly meeting of the community police. As his patrol drives into the town he greets the community police regional coordinator with a gift; some new handcuffs.
He admits that in the past there has been problems between the two authorities, but says they are now looking to the future.
"We are looking to strengthen our relationship with the community police. We want to work together because it’s the only way we can advance, on our own neither of us can succeed."
Fransisco Garcia Aguilar speaks out from behind bars. He has been imprisoned for homicide and wears the same t-shirt as all the other prisoners, bearing the ominous slogan "As you see me, you could see yourself". He feels abandoned by the community police judicial process.
"They don’t let us speak out, there are no human rights here. They don’t allow us to have lawyers. There are a lot of innocent people here and we need help," he says.
Jelasio Barrera, a village elder, confirms that the accused are not allowed lawyers. Instead a member of their family can represent them when they go to trial, in which the jury is again made up of the elders of the village.
Next to the complex legal systems of many developed countries to some this seems an undemocratic approach with substantial room for error. However, members of the community seem satisfied that at least when a crime is committed someone goes to jail.
A nation of impunity
It is a trend in marked contrast to a country seething with impunity. According to recent figures, a crime in Mexico has only a one to two per cent chance of leading to a conviction or jail time. In Ciudad Juarez, amongst the most violent cities on earth, The Associated Press reports that of 2,600 people killed in 2009, prosecutors filed 93 homicide cases and got 19 convictions.
Despite proposed wider ranging reforms to the judicial and police system in Mexico, corruption remains rampant amidst a police force further overwhelmed by the drug war.
Jesus Huerta is one of the founders of the community police. He now despairs of government solutions.
"In Mexico there’s no justice. If there was justice there wouldn’t be any poverty. If there was justice we farmers wouldn’t have to take in our own hands what the state is incapable of resolving."
The afternoon wears on in San Luis de Acatlan. As the meeting ends the community police and villagers stream out to cut open coconuts and drink the warm milk. The murmur of chatter drifts around the village plaza as these farmers-turned-policemen mingle with their community.
Whilst other parts of the country reel from increasing violence, this little pocket of Guerrero seems for now to have found its way to peace.