In 1995 the Mixtec and Tlapeneco people from three municipalities in the southwestern state of Guerrero, Mexico, came together to confront a wave of violence and insecurity that was striking the region. They founded a community police force, known as the Comunitaria, which grew out of a vigilance network that linked several communities, drawing on the long organizing history of these towns. In a relatively short time, the Comunitaria was able to significantly reduce local violence and insecurity, and later to construct a regional justice system on the basis of indigenous peoples’ law. Although the state considers the Comunitaria illegal, the official security forces have been unable to break it up, and it has only become stronger and acquired greater legitimacy among the towns.
This experience of constructing an autonomous, indigenous-based justice system has become an important example of the creative and innovative potential of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Today, within the context of the country’s national security crisis—28,000 killed in the last four years as a result of narco-violence— the community police of Guerrero stand out for demonstrating the possibility of addressing crime, confronting insecurity, and working for peace when the force of a community and its cultural identities are mobilized to weave the social fabric. They also reveal the ineffectiveness of Mexico’s much publicized Indigenous Rights Law of 2001, which does not recognize the autonomy that the country’s indigenous peoples continue to demand.
Who are the community police? In what sense are they succeeding in creating alternatives to the Mexican state’s political hegemony and for building social peace? What do they tell us about the role of diversity in judicial systems and indigenous autonomy in the context of the neoliberal state?
Guerrero, according to Mexico’s national Population Council (CONAPO), has one of the country’s highest levels of inequality and poverty, especially in its indigenous regions.1 It is a multi-ethnic territory with an important history of local organizing and political movements in which indigenous people have played an important role. This includes armed guerrilla groups active in the 1970s and more recently the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR); the mobilizations launched in the early 1990s by the Guerrero Council–500 Years of Indigenous, Black, and Popular Resistance to oppose celebrations of the Columbian quincentennial; and today’s ongoing teachers’ movement. Guerrero is also home to important human rights organizations, as well as many ethnic-based groups. This regional tradition of struggle has earned the state the nickname Guerrero Bronco (Bronco Warrior).2
Guerrero’s popular political mobilizing unleashed a dirty war against social organizations, with military and paramilitary incursions and continual violations of the human rights of indigenous people and social activists. Today the state’s violent response to the movement has sharpened in the context of its frontal assault on narco-trafficking syndicates and organized crime.3 This context frames the terrain in which autonomous indigenous organizations, including the Comunitaria, are working today. Meanwhile, the spaces of community justice and security have become central points in the communities’ political dispute with the state over the question of indigenous autonomy.
Unlike the laws pertaining to indigenous people in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, Guerrero’s laws recognizing indigenous rights have not been reformed (indigenous rights and justice in Mexico are subject to both federal and local state legislation and norms). The authorities do not even follow the second article of Mexico’s constitution, which grants indigenous people the right to “apply their own normative systems of regulation and internal conflict resolution,” as long as human rights and gender equality are respected. Yet the Comunitaria is considered illegal; community members have defended its legality by appealing to Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, ratified by Mexico in 1990, which recognizes their rights as indigenous peoples, and to Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, according to which sovereignty resides in the people. The success that they have had confronting crime and addressing problems of justice, and likewise the legitimacy they have earned from their people, has forced the state of Guerrero to recognize them as a de facto force, but under a double discourse: On the one hand, the state of Guerrero negotiates with them, and on the other it subjects them to constant surveillance, which occasionally borders on repression.
The territory covered by the community police has grown significantly with the huge demand from communities in the Montaña region of Guerrero that are asking to join the Comunitaria system, now that they see it as an alternative to the nil guarantees that the official justice system offers, as the State Commission on Human Rights of La Montaña, Tlachinollan, has documented.4 Today the Comunitaria has been established in more than 100 communities in 10 municipalities, bringing together rural people from the coast region with those of the neighboring Montaña area. The Comunitaria justice system is recognized not only by indigenous communities but also by the mestizos in the municipal centers, who go to the community authorities seeking justice; they know that their issues will be taken care of without being asked for money. The communitarian justice is effectively an open space and does not exclude anyone. It is not unusual to come across even well-off people coming before the Regional Coordinating Committee of Communitarian Authorities (CRAC) to resolve such problems as debt and cattle theft, among others.
The community security and justice system is integrated by two huge structures: the regional justice system administered by CRAC and the local community security apparatus that organizes police through the Executive Committee, integrated by regional commanders. It is a complex structure with local communities and authorities as its base. The Regional Assembly is the organization’s highest chamber, where the organization periodically addresses vital issues, including the most serious legal cases. The collective structure includes community leaders, including authorities of prestige who give advice to the detained as they are rehabilitated, and at the regional level, advisers who are former council members and now accompany and discuss issues with CRAC coordinators. In sum, CRAC is a collective body that administers justice but without the authority to make unilateral decisions. The entire structure is under the collective rule of the communities.
Guerrero’s communitarian justice is an interlegal product inasmuch as it combines indigenous judicial traditions with common features of statutory law, as well as new regulations generated in the confluence of international and national law on indigenous rights. As in other cases of indigenous justice in Latin America brought about by strenuous organizing efforts—the Zapatistas’ Juntas de Buen Gobierno in the neighboring state of Chiapas, the CRIC in Colombia, the Rondas Campesinas in Peru, and so on—the Comunitaria brings about a renewal of the law itself, as well as the cultural identities of community members, putting forward ethical and political principles that prioritize dignity, respect, and the defense of all. It defines itself in great part in opposition to the official justice system, which the indigenous peoples see as both excluding and corrupt. As Cirino Placido, historic leader of the Comunitaria, told this author in May 2006: “Communitarian justice is not based in money. . . . Here everyone has the same opportunity to present their complaint, in their own language, without having to pay for this justice to be done. . . . In communitarian justice the person that owes, pays. . . . Justice and security is a service, not a business.”
Communitarian justice is administrated by the CRAC’s regional coordinators, who are elected in an assembly every three years. The coordinators are obligated to follow due process, pursuing an investigation sustained by evidence and testimonies before ruling. Depending on the case, they prioritize finding agreeable settlements and seeking out reconciliation, and plenty of time is given to resolve the issues. The more serious cases that the CRAC cannot resolve are held in regional assemblies. The last phase of the process is “reeducation,” in which the convicted party performs community service for a certain period, depending on the crime. The detained convicts in reeducation rotate every 15 days among towns that participate in the Comunitaria system, assuming responsibility for feeding and watching over them. The ultimate aim of this process is to rehabilitate the offenders and reintegrate them into the community. The CRAC assumes the responsibility for imparting justice for all the crimes that are presented in its jurisdiction, from minor issues to more serious crimes like rape, murder, kidnapping, etc., which means that they overstep the bounds of what the state of Guerrero recognizes indigenous law to be.
All police officers are elected in their own communities to take on the duty for one year, without being paid, as an obligation. The police officers participate in local and regional patrols, and in inter-community actions under orders from the regional command. Their geographical knowledge allows them to skillfully move on the roads and paths, covering the entire region in little time looking for criminals. Right now there are about 800 community police officers in total, whose presence is noticeable during regional assemblies and in public activities. The police are armed with low-caliber rifles that are registered with the army, a measure that was taken when the organization was founded and that has allowed the Comunitaria to avoid being harassed or disarmed by the army. The Comunitaria effectively uses a strategy in which the communitarians protect themselves within the official law, and this reinforces a central fact about the community police: It exists to guarantee peace within indigenous territory, not to confront the state.
The CRAC authorities’ enormous flexibility in taking care of difficult situations and their ability to find adequate solutions to conflicts are especially striking. They use their own languages and shared cultural contexts, allowing them to gain the trust of all involved during the collective deliberation. Although the system of justice is principally an oral one, there is a strong tendency toward writing and making official the community law. This is reflected in the many certificates, reports, agreements, and stamps that judicial officials produce. The CRAC’s most important document is its Internal Regulations approved in 2008, which codifies the rules and principles of the communitarian system, which has been in a process of renewal since 1998.
Like other indigenous and communitarian justice systems, the CRAC reproduces differences in power and is not free of conflicts. The important thing, however, is the clout that the collective has in the administration of justice, which largely reduces discretionary decision-making and guarantees the participation of different voices. The collective dynamics also cause problems, and the resolutions are not always the “fairest” possible, as the women—who are opening spaces in the Comunitaria so that justice “doesn’t only benefit the men”—know very well.5 The Comunitaria uses neither physical punishment nor the appeal to religion as part of its justice system, much like in the communities in Cauca, Colombia, or in trials of the Mayans in Guatemala.6 They have achieved in their justice practices an efficiency that has given them a strong legitimacy among the people. They have reduced insecurity in the region by 90%, a statistic that is recognized by even the state authorities. This has led to de facto agreements between government officials and the CRAC to mutually respect one another’s tribunals and to coordinate their efforts.
The problems, successes, and dynamics of the justice implemented by the CRAC were illustrated in April, when community members from the community of Potrerillo del Rincón, in the Tlapa region, along with the Comunitaria, detained a group of people accused of several crimes, including killing two people. The accused were community members, and they were also accused of growing and selling marijuana, a crime that is strongly punished in the communitarian territory. The detained were presented before the community assembly in the presence of CRAC authorities, where they had their first trial. Given the seriousness of the events, the people in the community were extremely tense, and voices were heard asking for their lynching, something that hasn’t been heard in the region since the entrance of the communitarian police force. Those voices though were on the fringe, but they gave a new and concerning context. After a long collective trial, in the presence of family, community members, and the accused, authorities of the CRAC emphasized the importance of rehabilitation for the guilty parties. In the last regional assembly on June 6, when the case was discussed, it was decided that they would perform eight years of community service, enough time to determine whether they had been rehabilitated. Regional press picked up this story, emphasizing the anger of the community members and the lynching threat, and less the communitarian authorities’ ability to find an adequate solution based on collectively determined justice and rehabilitation.7
In the end, was the CRAC’s legitimacy that made justice possible in the Potrerillo del Rincón case. The case also reveals an important problem facing the communities: a spike in highway robberies, which had been done away with. Also, the problems of drugs and small-time drug dealing have penetrated the communities, as in the rest of the country. But as opposed to what happens in other places, the communitarians of Guerrero are able to provide an outlet for confronting these crimes for themselves, without having to involve the official judicial authorities, who on this occasion have respected the decisions of the Comunitaria, which does not always happen. This is above all the social fabric that the men and women from the communities have constructed, which has allowed them to maintain the institution and survive continual aggressions and destabilizing tensions.
There are several limitations that the communitarians face in their justice system, both internally and in their relationship with the state, especially on the topic of human rights—a major concern of the communitarians—and the problem of the inequality of justice for women. If many cases reveal slants or inconsistencies in their practice of justice, especially from the gender point of view, the CRAC’s communitarian justice nonetheless crystallizes a great collective effort that has made it possible for indigenous people to have access to justice from within their own culture and under their own control.
In contrast to other experiences of indigenous autonomy in Mexico, such as in Zapatista communities in Chiapas, which are defined as autonomous of the state, the Guerrero communitarians do not reject the state but look for new ways to work with it based on respect. Nevertheless they have avoided confrontation with the state even as they are in conflict with it; the hegemonic judicial discourse categorizes the Comunitaria as illegal, while at the same time state actors use illegal strategies against it. The Comunitaria’s blurry legal status and the “practices of illegibility” with which the neoliberal state creates “gray zones”—where the promise to guarantee rights is tinted with arbitrary power—have been a constant in the relationship between the state and its indigenous peoples.
In the case of the communitarian police in Guerrero the traditions of illegibility in which the relationship with the state has been constructed are marked by contradictory forces that reveal on the one hand the impossibility of state functionaries imposing their rules, and on the other hand the strength of community organization, which prevents itself from being subsumed by a legal system that wants to destroy it. In fact it seems impossible that the jurisdiction of the Comunitaria could be incorporated within the official legal system, such as it is constituted today (despite the attempts to regulate it, as recently has happened with the new public security law of 2007, which attempted to incorporate the communitarian police into the municipality).
The communitarians are not willing to submit themselves to a legal framework that will fragment them, which is why they often say, “We don’t want recognition, only respect.” In this context, they have learned to move within the spaces of legal ambiguity and to take advantage of them as a means of defending their autonomy—even though the lack of legal recognition continually subjects them to acts of discipline and control, assuring a minimum of regulation and keeping them in their subaltern condition. This is the case with, for example, arrest warrants issued against communitarian authorities for “abuses of power” or with the federal and state demands against the CRAC issued as a result of state and federal judgments for supposed violations of due process. The Comunitaria is then obligated to respond to this and other forms of pressure.
The methods and practices of security and justice implemented by the CRAC and the communitarian police confront the rule of law by establishing their own judicial systems and forms of justice, turning the state’s hegemonic discourse on its head and giving creed to other languages and jurisdictional referents, which, according to the late anthropologist William Roseberry, reveals the counter-hegemonic force of an organization like the Comunitaria.8 Likewise, to the extent that the jurisdictions and practices of community justice subvert the hegemonic juridical order, they appeal to diverse norms and propose plural visions of the state and society.
In Mexico’s present moment of crisis—of governability, of increasing insecurity and violence—institutions like the communitarian police are seen with a lot of suspicion by the institutionalized powers. On one hand they expose the fragility of the state and its legal framework, while on the other hand there is no capacity among officials to fully recognize what the institution of the Comunitaria has done to establish a new social order. Once again it is the excluded people who from the margins are showing that they are capable of constructing models for society that are much more fair and democratic than what the neoliberal state can provide. And at the same time, they have exposed the neoliberal globalizing project, which intends to regulate them and weaken their ability to contest challenges.
1. CONAPO, Indices de Marginación 2005, conapo.gob.mx/index.
2. Armando Bartra, Guerrero Bronco. Campesinos, ciudadanos y guerrilleros, en la Costa Grande (México, Editorial, ERA 2000); Joaquín Flores, Reinventando la democracia. El sistema de los policías comunitarios y las luchas indias (México: Plaza y Valdéz, 2007).
3. See feature articles in Proceso (Mexico City), no.1754, June 13, 2010.
4. Comisión Estatal de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, Informes, www.tlachinollan.org/notart/notart100308_win.html.
5. María Teresa Sierra “Las mujeres indígenas ante la justicia comunitaria. Perspectivas desde la interculturalidad y los derechos,” Desacatos 31 (CIESAS, 2009): 73–88. See also Folleto Mujeres Comunitaria: Mirada y participación de las mujeres en la comunitaria, www.policiacomunitaria.org.
6. Rachel Sieder, “Building Mayan Authority: The ‘Recovery’ of Indigenous Law in Post-Conflict Guatemala” (under review), Law, Politics and Society.
7. Kau Sirenio Pioquinto, “Detiene la Comunitaria a otros siete por homicidios y asaltos en Malinaltepec,” El Sur de Guerrero (Acapulco), April 13, 2010.
8. William Roseberry, “Hegemony and the Language of Contention,” in Gil Joseph and David Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Duke University Press, 1994).
María Teresa Sierra teaches at the Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City. Her research focuses on law, politics, and human and indigenous rights.