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What would community justice look like? San Luis Acatlán, Mexico.

...a place where the law and the police work very, very differently. In that place, when a police officer is found guilty of a crime, they are punished more harshly, the idea being that a cop should be held to a higher standard.

The place in question is San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero, Mexico, and it is engaged in a form of justice that is a new experiment and at the same time, is centuries old.
Written by David Martinez
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 09:06

...a place where the law and the police work very, very differently. In that place, when a police officer is found guilty of a crime, they are punished more harshly, the idea being that a cop should be held to a higher standard.

The place in question is San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero, Mexico, and it is engaged in a form of justice that is a new experiment and at the same time, is centuries old.

San Luis Acatlán is a town of around 35,000 souls, laid out along a long street that stretches between two churches. It lies east along the Pacific coast and inland several miles from glittery Acapulco, its much more well-known neighbor. The rainy season has ended when I arrived there, and a pounding heat has replaced the rain. I've come here to find out about a group called La Policía Comunitaria, an autonomous police force and justice system that is something of a legend in Mexico. The idea is simple: local people are elected to act as temporary police officers, and justice is administered by a council of community members, not the local state system. The inspiration for the project arose after a period of violence in the region that everyone who is old enough remembers well, and doesn't hesitate to describe.

"It was horrible, the early 1990's," says Victorio, a man in his thirties with fierce dark eyes and a slight frame, clutching a well-oiled but ancient M1 carbine. "Women were being raped on the roads between villages, and nobody could travel anywhere, and I mean anywhere, after dark. Those years were absolutely terrible in these parts."

And so after this initial frustration with the authorities, and many more village assemblies, in 1995 the Policía Comunitaria, a police force to be made up of volunteers from the villages themselves, was born. There was a long debate as to whether to call themselves La Policía Auxiliada, (The Auxiliary Police), or La Policía Comunitaria, (The Community Police). The former title implied that the villagers would be an extension of the local constabulary, while the latter implied a new form of policing and of justice. After a long night of debating, the new force was christened La Policía Comunitaria.

After various meetings it was decided that people suspected of a crime would be judged by a council of village elders, elected like the Policía, and then if they were found guilty they would be sentenced not to prison but to a form of community service, which the C.R.A.C. called "re-education". The sentence would always be carried out in a village other than one's own, in order to avoid the difficulty of a person being held prisoner by their own neighbors.

"What we are engaged in here is a recuperation of what was once ours, the right to collective decision making," explains Cirino further over ice cold sodas that taste heavenly in the heat of the day. "This project is an exercise in the collective rights of the people, and it is a horizontal vision, as opposed to a vertical one."

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