June 29, 2006

Rifle-toting Mexican peasants are own policemen

By Catherine Bremer

SAN LUIS ACATLAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Half a dozen men in
black combat gear jump out of a jeep, weighed down by huge
rifles, and nudge a shirtless prisoner through a dusty yard and
into a cramped cell with two other men.

An accused rapist, he is one of 10 prisoners who escaped in
the night from a improvised jail near the indigenous mountain
town of San Luis Acatlan in the southern Mexican state of

Also at the scene, stepping over chickens and flea-bitten
dogs, is a fuming lawyer from Mexico City, who says town elders
wrongfully pronounced one of the prisoners guilty of murder.

Forget calling the federal police to sort it out -- they
don't venture this far into Guerrero's poor, lawless hills, say

Left to fend for themselves in a part of Mexico where drug
bosses rule, violence is everywhere, and no peasant leaves home
without a gun or machete, locals took matters into their own
hands 11 years ago and created a community police force.

The unpaid police volunteers investigate crimes and detain
those they believe are responsible. Town elders act as judge
and jury, and those they convict are made to do hard labor.

"We don't need the federal police. And they don't come up
here. We are protecting the unprotected," said Sidronio Aburto,
keeping guard at the San Luis Acatlan base that serves dozens
of nearby Nahua and Mixtec indigenous communities.


Days before the July 2 presidential election, where voters
cite crime as a key concern, the spread of self-policing in
Guerrero underlines an alarming lack of faith in the government
to keep people safe.

Active in six of Guerrero's 77 municipalities, the
community police are not officially recognized but are
tolerated as an indigenous custom like child marriages.

The three men in the cell at San Luis Acatlan, their only
furniture a bucket, will be locked up for several years.

They will do hard labor like carrying rocks to building
sites until town elders decide they have paid their dues.

"Here we work differently to the government. We use our
heads," said community police chief Abad Flores.

"We don't suffocate or hurt suspects to make them talk," he
said, referring to the brutal interrogation techniques of
Mexico's federal police.

However shaky it may look to outsiders, locals regard their
volunteer police as fairer than a federal system notorious for
corruption and incompetence.

"Before, there was a lot of crime. People would murder a
partner, parent or friend over something small. There were
rapes. Our delivery truck was often held up on the road," said
grocery store owner Judith Zavaleta, 45.

"Things are better now. The community police turn criminals
into good people."

Most of the crime in Guerrero's indigenous villages, where
illiteracy and alcoholism is rife and eating meat is a luxury,
stems from feuds over land and livestock.

Hold-ups by rock-throwing looters on mountain roads became
common in the 1990s when some peasants grew briefly richer from
coffee. Now, even children as young as 11 are armed.


Federal police operate in Guerrero's bigger towns and
cities but have been powerless to stop weekly machine-gun
shootings and grenade attacks, often on busy streets.

In the run-up to the election, drive-by shootings of police
have soared in resort towns like Ixtapa and Acapulco, key
fronts in the government's war on drug cartels.

Gangs also kidnap, torture and even behead their victims,
recently dumping two severed heads in central Acapulco.

Opinion polls for the presidential vote show that violent
crime tops concerns for voters but few in Guerrero see a new
government as the solution.

"There's a disillusionment here over the election. Crime is
out of control and the police are incapable of stopping it. The
underclass has no confidence in the authorities," said human
rights lawyer Vidulfo Rosales in the hilltop town of Tlapa.

"The federal police are part of the problem; officers often
belong to one of the gangs," he added, noting that wages of
just $300 a month prompt many police to turn to crime.

In the hills, clashes are on the rise between peasants
growing poppies and government troops battling a growing heroin
trade. Peasants on donkeys have shot at army helicopters whose
herbicide sprays have destroyed corn and bean crops.

Many say community policing is preferable to the
lawlessness created by decades of neglect for Mexico's some 10
million Indians. Yet it is far from perfect.

Human rights workers recount horrific stories of sexual
abuse of children that went unpunished by community police
because indigenous families were to ashamed to speak up.

Some criticize the rudimentary way guilt is decided and say
grudges for wrongful imprisonment can fuel more violence.

"The origin of all this is poverty," said shopkeeper
Zavaleta. "People here live like animals, not human beings.
Politicians trick them into voting for them but once in power
they do nothing."