Twenty years ago, a revolution in policing and community justice broke out in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Fed up with constant robberies and sexual assaults, Indigenous communities in the Costa Rica and La Montana regions of Guerrero formed armed community police forces that grew into the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC).
Taking root in scores of Mixtec, Nahua and other communities, the CRAC was widely credited with significantly curbing criminal activities. Concomitant with a volunteer policing concept, the CRAC implemented a popular justice system of reeducation and community work.
In a historical context, the CRAC developed in a time marked by the Indigenous protests against the 1992 Columbus Quincentennial, the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas and
the renewed movement for Indigenous autonomy across Mexico. In 2008, the CRAC founded a community radio station called The Voice of the People.
In 2011, during the last days of the administration of Governor Zeferino Torreblanca Galindo, the legality of the community police/justice system in Indigenous communities was formalized by the state government with the passage of State Law #701.
Today, however, State Law #701 and the achievements in public safety it symbolized are in jeopardy.
With the past and future in mind, CRAC members assembled last week in San Acatlan, Guerrero, for a 20th anniversary celebration that also debated and analyzed a course forward for a popular system that is strained on different fronts.
Toting shotguns and low-caliber rifles, hundreds of community police staged a march in San Acatlan attired in their olive-green t-shirts.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary, Arturo Campos, CRAC commander imprisoned since 2013 on charges his supporters insist are trumped up, spoke to the Guerrero daily El Sur from jail.
“Our imprisonment is not a coincidence. It is planned by the federal and state governments so we could be detained and slapped with fabricated charges like kidnapping, robbery, organized crime and terrorism,” Campos told a reporter. “Delinquency is in the government, and (officials) have a fear of the armed and organized people because (officials) know that they themselves are the same as delinquents.”
In a series of meetings, CRAC members discussed creeping threats of internal corruption; reunification of their forces; possible modifications to the community justice system; solidarity with the movement for the forcibly disappeared 43 Ayotzinapa college students; opposition to mining projects; gender equality; renewal of State Law #701; and freedom for imprisoned leaders Arturo Campos, Nestora Salgado, Gonzalo Molina and others.
Since its emergence, the CRAC has had a testy relationship with the state and federal governments ( as well as the PRI and PRD political parties which have alternated power in Guerrero in recent years), passing through phases of grudging acceptance, repression, recognition, seduction, and more repression.
In 2001 and 2002, under the administration of PRI Governor Rene Juarez Cisneros, the state police detention of five community police leaders was followed by an ultimatum from Juarez ordering the communities to disarm. But the massive mobilization of communities involved in the popular police/justice system not only succeeded in freeing the detained leaders, but successfully defended law enforcement and justice institutions built from the ground up.
In 2004 Gov. Juarez, who is currently a PRI senator, proposed that the CRAC be integrated into state government, with CRAC detainees remanded to state jails. In return, the CRAC would be allowed to name penitentiary directors and police investigators. Community assemblies, however, rejected the proposal and opted to keep their own system in place.
In August 2013, the Mexican army participated in the arrests of CRAC Commander Nestora Salgado and a dozen fellow police officers. Salgado’s supporters contend the accusations were conjured up after the community police force in the municipality of Olinala disturbed the interests of criminals involved in rustling, sex trafficking and other illicit activities.
A long-time resident of the United States before she returned to Guerrero, Salgado has languished in prison, mostly in solitary confinement, for more than two years now even after one judge ruled that the charges against her were groundless. Her case has become an international issue.
While confrontations with the government have pressured CRAC, internal divisions have also sapped the organization. The divisions were evident in San Acatlan , where two of the five Houses of Justice, as the territorial headquarters of the CRAC are known, participated in the meeting along with committees from Acapulco, Olinala, Metlatonoc, Huamaxtitlan and Tixtla, the town nearest to the Ayotzinapa rural teacher college.
Moreover, some original members of the CRAC separated from the organization and formed the Guerrero State Union of Peoples and Organizations (UPOEG), which led an armed uprising against organized crime in the Costa Chica in early 2013.
The UPOEG, in turn, fractured and one faction formed the FUSDEG.
In early August 2015 , UPOEG Commander Miguel Angel Jimenez Blanca, who was very active last year assisting the parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students as well as relatives of other people disappeared in and around the city of Iguala search for their loved ones, was found murdered in Xaltianguis, a rural town outside Acapulco.
At the San Acatlan meeting, Abad Garcia and other CRAC leaders blamed a good share of the divisions on former CRAC leaders Eliseo Villar and Adelaida Hernandez, both of whom now face state legal accusations.
The CRAC’s Jesus Cabrera charged that Villar and Hernandez, without the consultation of community coordinators, compromised the organization by agreeing with the Guerrero state government to register arms with the Mexican army and enact a state certification system of officers, all in return for one million pesos per month for the CRAC and economic aid for impoverished rural communities.
“Receiving the money brought division, discredit to the (CRAC) authorities, lack of control in the education of detainees and the loss of credibility and legitimacy of community authorities,” Abad contended. “That’s why we’re working on the unity of the CRAC.”
Upholding independence and autonomy, Abad vowed that his organization would not accept money from the governor-elect, Hector Astudillo, who assumes office on Tuesday, October 27.
Abad has his own critics. Relatives of young people detained by the CRAC demonstrated during the San Acatlan meeting, with one man claiming that his son was still being held in work detention even though his sentence had expired. “Long live the CRAC, but out with Abad,” demanded some protest placards.
Despite problems and divisions, Abad said the CRAC has expanded its presence in dozens of communities. For the near-term, the CRAC plans on mobilizing in defense of State Law #701, which under current law is set to expire in April 2016.
The law’s expiration could leave the CRAC and other community police forces extremely vulnerable to legal crackdowns. In San Luis Acatlan, CRAC members also agreed to participate in popular mobilizations on the day Astudillo is inaugurated.
In the neighboring state of Michoacan, meanwhile, tensions percolate between the state and federal governments and Nahua self-defense forces in the Pacific coastal region around Santa Maria Ostula.
In response to declarations by new Michoacan Governor Silvano Aureoles, a member of the PRD party, that his administration would not tolerate armed self-defense groups, an Ostula commander said his people will not disarm as long as leaders of the Knights Templar organized crime group were still on the loose. To do so, would amount to “suicide,” said Hector Zepeda.
The Nahua self-defense force grew out of a 2009 movement by Ostula community members to recuperate lands they claimed had been usurped by small landowners in cahoots with organized crime. The logging of fine wood in nearby forests was another popular grievance. In 2006, Ostula was visited by EZLN Subcomandante Marcos during the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign.
Subsequent attacks against the Ostula movement left 32 community members murdered and 6 others disappeared. Murdered in December 2011, prominent Ostula activist Jose Trinidad de la Cruz, who was also involved in poet Javier Sicilia’s Movement for Peace with Justice, was among the victims.
The bloody repression caused the Ostula community to disperse. Then in early 2014, under the protective cover of the larger self-defense movement against organized crime that erupted in Michoacan, a group of Ostula residents led by Cemei Verdia returned and reasserted control of their territory.
In July 2015, Verdia was taken into custody by Mexican soldiers and accused of crimes ranging from murder to illegal arms possession. The 37-year-old self-defense leader had previously escaped multiple assassination attempts, and reportedly had a price out for his head.
Demanding freedom for the self-defense leader, Verdia’s supporters barricaded the coastal highway. A July 19 confrontation with soldiers in the community of Ixtapilla turned violent, resulting in the shooting death of 12-year-old Hildeberto Reyes Garcia and the wounding of four other persons.
Shortly after the violent incident, Michoacan State Attorney General Jaime Rodriguez Aguilar denied allegations that soldiers fired the shots which killed the Reyes child. But the mother, Emilia Garcia Cabrera, maintained “many witnesses saw soldiers shoot,” while protesters were armed only with shovels and stones.
Three months later, Garcia said state and federal government promises of indemnification and help with funeral expenses still have not been fulfilled. No one has been charged with Hildeberto’s killing.
Like Arturo Campos and Nestora Salgado, Cemei Verdia is regarded a political prisoner by his supporters. Zepeda said Verdia was initially charged with four murders, but that nobody was held accountable for the deaths of two self-defense members who were slain in the same gun battle that pitted the Nahua self-defense force against suspected underworld assassins.
Similar to regions of Guerrero where the CRAC and other community police forces enjoy a presence, the coastal Nahua lands of Michoacan are located in a corridor where mining- much of it illegal and connected to organized crime- figures into the overall political and socio-economic equation. Rich in iron ore, the Nahua region also contains deposits of gold and silver. The big market for Michoacan’s iron ore is China, where shipments are sent from the port of Lazaro Cardenas.
Sources: Proceso/Apro, October 19, 2015. Article by Pedro Zamora Briseno. El Sur, October 16, 17 and 2015. Articles by Jacob Morales Antonio, Daniel Velazquez and Lourdes Chavez. La Jornada, October 15 and 17, 2015. Articles by Sergio Ocampo and Ernesto Martinez Elorriaga. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), October 16 and 17, 2015. Articles by Arturo de Dios Palma. Aristeguinoticias.com, August 10, 2015. Article by Laura Castellanos. BBC Mundo, August 9, 2015.