The Militia and the Community Police: Perspectives on their Differences from Guerrero, Michoacán, and Morelos
By Jaime Quintana Guerrero
- Three members of community justice systems from three Mexican states explain their mechanism’s birth, and how community justice responds to indigenous communities
- Community justice differs from the militia, but the three agree that everybody needs to find their own path to freedom
Mexico. “If your struggle is freedom, then welcome. But if the struggle is filled with fear and terror, then we know that the paramilitaries have arrived or are coming.” So warns community justice member, Salvador Campanur, a Purhépecha. With Claudio Carrasco from Guerrero’s Community Police, and Guillermo Hernández from Tepotzlán in Morelos State, Campanur explains that community justice systems are rooted in ancient traditions and respond to popular assemblies. The three add that community justice forms part of the complex construction of popular autonomy, while the militias respond to the interests of specific groups.
Salvador Campanur begins to refer to events in Michoacán, where militias battle to expel the Knights Templar criminal group. Campanur comes from Cherán – one of the hotspots where the autonomy movement began in 2011 – and from where the community police expelled the talamontes. He explains that the situation for indigenous townships differs to those of cities or ejidos [communal landholdings]. But he emphasizes that each community needs to find its own path to freedom, “and that we can’t order anybody to do what we have done.”
“The community police,” explains Guillermo Hernández Chapa, from the township of Tepotzlán in Morelos, “respond to the need for autonomy — where the people consider security fundamental for every aspect of their development.”
The Militia and Community Based Policing
Salvador Campanur says that indigenous communities are not just fighting to defend themselves, but against all forms of outside interference. Take extractive industries, for example, “these divide communities, families, and inhabitants.”
Claudio Carrasco from Guerrero’s community police describes how his organization differs from his state’s militias: “those groups don’t apply justice. They don’t respond to popular assemblies. They hand detainees over to government officials.”
A member of the Mepháa community, Carrasco explains that the militia want to operate like the community police but that they don’t have the people or the experience to investigate the detainees for their alleged crimes. He states emphatically this means that, “one hears of the militia torturing people, or letting criminals walk free.”
The state of Morelos has not seen a militia movement emerge like those in Michoacán and Guerrero, explains Guillermo Hernández. “We recognize that the militia responds to specific groups and not to community assemblies.” In Metepec, for example, the owners of avocado orchards created groups to guard their production process. But no community assembly recognizes them.
One other difference exists between the militia and the community police, says the Tepoztlán community member: “the militia enter into agreements with government bodies. But community groups don’t enter agreements because we aren’t waiting for the government’s recognition. Instead, the community police operate under agreements between the general assemblies and the communities.”
The Birth of the Community Police
Community members and indigenous people agree that even before the Mexcian Revolution, local people organized security and justice. “Before armies arrived in the Americas, traditional mechanisms already existed,” explains Campanur.
On 15 April 2011, Cherán Township in Michoacán became tired of the extortions, murders, and clandestine logging of their forests, so its people started an armed uprising using sticks, stones, and machetes. To start the process of organizing security in the Purhépecha township “we had to weather several experiences: the way the government and political parties treated us, divisions within the community, and the presence of organized crime,” remembers Campanur. “In a community, when one wants to organize, confront, and make good on one’s promises, that’s when we turn to the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors, the things we base ourselves on.”
Cherán’s residents identified that the land “is our house and we have to defend it. That’s the way we understand how to defend the land our ancestors bequeathed us,” reminds the Purhépecha community member. Later, they organized security using torchlight patrols to confront “the bad guys” who, they complained, were supported by armed groups and the military. They took back their land using those methods. Afterwards they organized elections according to their community traditions, processes recognized by official electoral institutes.
Cherán’s community guards provide security to around 20,000 inhabitants over an area of 27 thousand hectares of communal land.
Salvador Campanur explains the community patrol’s membership: “there’s no way to say who can or can’t join a patrol. It’s a duty for children, youth, adults, and old alike,” and nobody receives pay.
In Guerrero’s Costa Chica and on the Mountain, the Regional Coordinator of Community Policing Authorities (CRAC-PC) has 18 years experience providing a system of security, justice, and re-education. Claudio Carrasco, a Mepháa, indicates that, “police selection is based on an open competition run by the community’s general assembly. The village has to choose 14 officers, including first and second commanders.” To nominate commanders and coordinators, the townships convene a regional general assembly where all the communities meet.
The CRAC brings together ethnic communities of Mepháa, Ñu, Savi, Ñancu, Ñomdaa, afro-mestizos, and mestizos. “We have our own rules, and nobody is above them. Not even our regional assembly can change them,” explains Carrasco.
On the Costa Chica and in the mountains – in areas of drug cultivation and transshipment – there are active organized crime groups like Los Pelones and the Independent Cartel. In 2012 the community police confiscated weapons, trucks and drugs from one of these cartels.
Claudio Carrasco was once a coordinator but now is a CRAC council member. He remembers that in the justice system “we came to do a good job and grow. But all of a sudden mining interests appeared and generated a conflict which provoked the formation of a militia.” The former coordinator explains that his community stopped the businesses from coming in, so the government tried to find a way to divide the CRAC. “Divisions erupted, and then the militia arrived.” They tried to take away the community justice system.
“The militias arose spontaneously, so to speak. There’s no project. And from what we know, the government creates them and supports them. But we don’t know to what end,” says the CRAC coordinator.
In the state of Morelos, birthplace of historic leaders like Emiliano Zapata, Rubén Jaramillo, “El Güero” Medrano, and Félix Serdán, some of its regions continue with community security procedures, or “farmers’ patrols.”
Community policing practices have been reinforced in the wake of Rubén Jaramillo’s experiences,” explains Hernández Chapa. “In the ‘sixties, we had community justices of the peace, a post that existed to resolve internal disputes. But the post got lost at the national level of state justice. In the eighties, we still resolved things at the community level,” tells Hernández Chapa.
The patrols were called the “twenties” because indigenous people took turns every twenty days. But things began to change when authorities started to pay for the community’s security, meaning that the communities supported the municipal president. Hernández Chapa explains that in this way in some places, communal practices weakened.
Ocotepec, was the first community in Morelos to put the traditional practices of community safety above municipal law. In 2013 Temoac Township decided to re-establish community patrols in response to violence and home robberies. The communities selected a commander and twelve people to take charge of security. In some cases the patrols have arrested officials so that they answer to the communities.
Patrols are part clandestine, says Tepoztlán’s patrol member, Guillermo Hernández Chapa. Community policing has brought him into conflict with municipal authorities. “In order to be in a position of authority, including policing, you ought to have fulfilled other requirements,” added the patrol member.
Campanur specifies that Cherán did not invent this fight or the way of defending itself. It can’t tell any other community how to do it. “In the first place we are respectful of every group’s autonomy,” he indicates. “We can’t tell anybody to walk the same path as ours. We respect each other’s autonomy and ways of thinking. If they are pursuing freedom on their own terms then we must respect them.” But the Purhépecha community member underlined that “we want them to respect the steps we have taken in our own communities.”
Author Jaime Quintana Guerrero sits on the editorial board of Desinformemonos. This article first appeared under the title, “Autodefensas y policías comunitarias, diferencias vistas desde los pueblos,” at http://desinformemonos.org/2014/01/diferencias-entre-autodefensas-y-policias-comunitarias-vistas-desde-los-pueblos/.