It is no secret that Mexico is currently one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. This is the case for journalists, business owners, politicians and for the average citizen.–
The crime wave is the result of disputes between the powerful drug-trafficking gangs who have imposed their rule through violence over almost the whole country. And the war declared by the government, confronting them head-on with the Mexican army, seems to have become part of the problem instead of solving it.
Despite that, in the south of Mexico in the Costa Chica and Montaña regions of Guerrero State, inhabited by indigenous peoples of the Náhuatl, Me’phaa and Savi tribes, a different situation exists. In accordance with the State Public Security Bureau, this region is one of the most crime-free regions not just of the State but in the whole country.
And the method of achieving this calm in the area is due to the indigenous peoples who live there. In 1995 they organized for themselves their own police force and later a justice system, independent from that of the government. One October morning, 17 years ago a grand assembly was held, of hundreds of members of the Me’phaa, Nahua and Savi peoples, together with people of mixed race, to deal with the problem of crime that dominated the whole area. Attending the meeting were men, women, young and old, and a considerable number of parish priests, with strong links to the communities, who all asked the question: “What are we going to do to protect ourselves?”
Some people at the meeting suggested arming people and searching out the criminals, to lynch them, and apply the Law of ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. If the robbers had murdered and committed swindles they deserved the same fate as their victims. “No señores!”, said the community elders, wise men held in great esteem by their peoples. “It’s better to re-educate them!”, they suggested.
In the assembly held on 15th October 1995 in Santa Cruz del Rincón, the indigenous people from the boroughs of Xalpatláhuac, San Luis Acatlán, Malinaltepec, Metlatónoc and Atlamajalcingo del Monte, chose instead to organize their own police force, of indigenous members nominated in their assemblies.
From then on the force , known as the Policía Comunitaria, made up of unpaid volunteers, was armed only with obsolete single-shot rifles, without ammunition or police training, but also had the support and respect of the neighbouring residents, who had appointed them to the job.
The agents of the Policía Comunitaria soon produced results which surprised both local people and those from beyond the region: the crime rate dropped considerably. There were less and less robberies on the roads. However the strategy in these areas found itself blocked, because the official justice system was shown to be vulnerable to corruption and abuses.
So, in 1998, 3 years after setting up its police force, the indigenous people also agreed to create their own system of administering justice, independent of the official one. They nominated respected people of their own – village leaders and old people – to be members of a Regional Council of Community Authorities (Concejo Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias, CRAC). From then on this body would be given responsibility to act as judges, and impose sentences according to indigenous habits and customs, and with the agreement of a general assembly in which many people participated.
Then those who committed crimes were submitted to a re-education process, which consisted in doing community work, according to the seriousness of their offences.
It works like this: in villages belonging to the ‘Territorio Comunitaria’, where the Policía operate, anyone who has suffered a crime comes to the CRAC office in San Luis Acatlán, to make an official complaint.
In the presence of the coordinators, they have to bring 2 witnesses to confirm that they have been the victim of the alleged crime, a corroboration whose words are trusted by the coordinator of the community. Then the committee issues an order to the chiefs of the Policía Comunitaria, for the alleged offender to be brought before them. The situation is discussed in a general assembly, and in cases where the crime is confirmed, the offender has to make good the damage by community work, if for example he has rustled cattle or stolen other goods.
In more serious cases, such as murders or rapes, a lot more discussion takes place, which requires several assemblies.
This system of justice has been the fundamental driving force for the transformation of the crime rate in the region. It is not by chance that the Montaña – Costa Chica region has the lowest crime rate of the whole of Guerrero State. This official analysis has made quite clear that the villages which have joined the Territorio Comunitaria are those with the lowest number of crimes.
Only the indigenous organizers of CRAC fully understand the difficulties involved in achieving the noble goal or guaranteeing a secure environment for the local inhabitants.
No-one denies that in the process, after more than a decade of working, situations may arise requiring an adaptation of the process.
Many researchers, journalists, anthropologists, activists, politicians, officials, students, and others have visited to find out how the system operates. Everyone has taken note of the fact that the members of CRAC make an effort each day to keep the spirit of the organization alive: community justice free of abuses and corruption.
And it is just this spirit which maintains the movement effective and consistent to such an extent that it is considered and emblem of indigenous autonomy and justice in Mexico, and among all the peoples of the continent.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)