Angelica Romero, a middle-aged mother of two, views her reflection in the bedroom mirror. She tucks her blue T-shirt into her jeans, pulls her hair back in a ponytail, and slips a tan baseball cap onto her head. In black letters across the brim, it reads: “Citizen Police.”
Only a few months earlier, residents of Romero’s town, Xaltianguis, located in the verdant hills outside Acapulco, had been paralyzed by fear of kidnapping gangs, armed robbers and extortionists. But since the townspeople banded together to form a militia this summer, the crime wave has come to an end.
As the sun sets, Romero and three dozen other women in blue shirts emblazoned with the words “Citizen Police” gather around Miguel Angel Jiménez, Xaltianguis’ 43-year-old community police commander, to get ready for their daily patrol.
Standing at the top of the stairs while two sentries stand guard down the street, Commander Jiménez yells out, “Ladies! The town needs to keep defending itself!”
“They want to kill us, so we have to fight!” a woman in the crowd calls out.
“The important thing is unity,” Jiménez says. “If they take our guns, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that we don’t split up.”
In Guerrero, a state where communities have few ties to the federal government, locally organized law enforcement groups are not a new phenomenon. However, Xaltianguis’ citizen police are ironic byproducts of Mexico’s crackdown on organized crime.
In 2009, Mexican marines killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva and in 2010, federal police captured Édgar Valdez Villarreal, a Texan gangster known as “The Barbie”—setting off an internal leadership crisis within Beltrán Leyva’s organization and a power struggle between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. By 2011, Mexico’s Pacific coast was once again engulfed in violence. With more than 2,400 murders that year and more than 2,600 the following year, Guerrero earned the unwelcome distinction of being Mexico’s most violent state.
The federal government responded with Plan Nuevo Guerrero (Plan New Guerrero), an initiative that combined security strategies with economic and social development. At the same time, the police presence on Acapulco streets increased. Soldiers in camouflage have joined the city’s white-shirted tourist police, state cops and federal police as a high-visibility deterrence to organized gangs. But local officials concede that lawlessness still permeates Acapulco’s marginalized neighborhoods.
Robberies are also a major concern, says Jesus Córtez Jiménez, the city’s 34-year-old secretary of public security, noting that “now we mostly have problems that result from poverty.”
Even as the internal cartel wars have ebbed, “There’s a lot of kidnapping and assaults,” says Abel García, a 46-year-old taxi driver who works in Acapulco Viejo, a neglected section of Guerrero’s most famous tourist city.
One day earlier, a taxi driver had been found dead, with much of his face missing. He had been badly tortured before he was killed.
Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City–based security analyst, says such violence reflects a change in the nature of criminality in Acapulco. After the major cartels were driven out of the city under the federal anti-crime strategy, hitmen and enforcers who previously worked for major mafia groups diversified into other criminal enterprises such as kidnapping, retail drug sales and extortion.
“It’s no longer cartel versus cartel,” Hope says. “It’s retail drugs and extortion of all types, especially [of] taxi drivers. Everyone is paying.”
Neighborhoods and towns on the outskirts of Acapulco have felt the change most dramatically. Hardened cartel killers, or sicarios, who have moved into the hills, now present a mortal threat to the communities that ring Acapulco.
The fact that police have been slow to assert their presence has only further emboldened them.
In Xaltianguis, gangsters kidnapped the father of Fernando Flores del Carmen, 30, at a cockfight—and killed him before realizing that they had taken the wrong person.
“When we found him, his body was decomposed,” recalls Flores. “The soldiers said they’d come help; they never came. The police, nobody, helped with the search.”
Selsa Zarcotellos, 43, was also scarred by the violence. “In 2010, they killed my uncle. They cut his head off. In September, they shot my brother. Then they killed my brother-in-law,” she says.
Her brother-in-law, who worked at a tortilla-making business that had received threats from extortionists, was kidnapped and Zarcotellos’ family later found his body by a river in a nearby town.
Local Citizens Fill the Vacuum
After suffering so many tragedies, the shopkeepers and residents of Xaltianguis decided to pick up weapons and form patrols.
“There was no other way. Nobody had a better proposal on how to bring about peace,” Zarcotellos says.
According to Mexico historian Paul Gillingham, no one should be surprised by the residents’ response.
The lack of reliable local police forces has forced many communities to take up arms. The phenomenon first emerged in early 2013, when citizens in the town of Ayutla banded together to form patrols and detain a group of kidnappers.
In subsequent months, citizen militias sprung up in other parts of the state, generally under the umbrella of two organizations, the Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero (Union of Organizations and Peoples of the State of Guerrero—upoeg) and the Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias (Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities—crac).
They were acting, in fact, within their rights. Mexico’s constitution provides Indigenous communities with the right to self-governance and self-policing (usos y costumbres). The definition of “Indigenous,” however, is open to interpretation.
In rural Guerrero, “Policing has always been ad hoc,” says Gillingham. “In many places, you look at the community and it’s obviously mestizo, but it’s tactically advantageous to be [classified as] Indigenous.”
Mexico’s constitution also stipulates that women have equal rights within local institutions—which is what has happened in Guerrero’s citizen militias. While the men first sought out the help of the upoeg and started their patrols in June, the women began their own marches in late August. After watching the men’s patrols, many women insisted on getting involved.
Today’s patrols are mostly gender-segregated, but not entirely. Raúl Muñoz García, an openly gay shopkeeper, signed up to join the women’s patrol.
“I didn’t care if it was with the men or with the women,” he says. “They killed my nephew and my brother. It was ugly, [so] I decided to become a police patrol member. We used to lock ourselves in at night, but not anymore.”
The armed citizens’ groups have clearly empowered local communities. But they have created a challenge for the Mexican government, which has traditionally used the army to maintain law and order in Guerrero.
The citizens’ patrols “exist in a gray area of rights to usos y costumbres,” observes Gillingham. “In Mexico, gun control is very rigorous. It’s very difficult to get a gun permit,” he says. But the Indigenous claims allow communities to skirt these laws by suggesting that they are governed by separate customs and practices.
In the 1970s—a time of serious political unrest in Guerrero—changes to Article 10 of Mexico’s constitution and the passage of the Federal Firearms and Explosives Law banned private ownership of pistols with a caliber over nine millimeters, but permitted rural residents to keep their guns. Article 9 of Mexico’s Federal Firearms and Explosives Law states that “members of agricultural collectives [ejidatarios y comuneros] and other farm workers [jornaleros del campo]” can own .22 caliber rifles and all shotguns other than those with military-style short-length barrels.
Meanwhile, members of Mexican police institutions may carry arms “in those cases and circumstances established by the Law and applicable regulations.” But, when it comes to the use of force, the community defense forces operate within an uncharted area of Mexico’s current judicial system.
In February 2013, when members of a civil defense force in Las Mesas shot at a car full of tourists after they refused to stop at a checkpoint, local prosecutors classified the incident as an “attack” and promised to investigate the incident and sanction those responsible. The same month, when a self-defense force in Ayutla killed one armed criminal during a shoot-out with four gunmen, no charges were filed against the citizen police.
For now, the armed community police groups continue to operate within their own local jurisdictions while the federal government provides oversight. Sometimes this leads to conflict. In late August 2013, 500 soldiers detained and disarmed a group of community police from Ayutla as they joined a protest march.
Guerrero’s state government is also pushing volunteer police forces to become more institutionalized and more integrated into official police structures. While the army has intervened to disarm patrols in some areas, the community police continue to operate in Xaltianguis.
According to Crecencio Palmas, a 33-year-old community police guard whose two sisters were kidnapped in 2011, the federal police and army have helped eliminate the hardcore criminal element from the town.
“A year and a half ago, the marines came and had a shootout with some kidnappers,” Palmas recalls. “They killed all of [the kidnappers.] Now there are no more assaults and no [patrolman] has ever fired his gun.”
Meanwhile, the mere presence of the armed community patrols has deterred local criminals: a few months ago, residents detained a local criminal after a complaint was filed against him. “He’s now waiting for the community board to make a decision on how much community service he’ll do,” Palmas says.
Although alleged criminals have the right to block proceedings against them by local, ad hoc authorities with an amparo—a legal measure designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—many choose to accept the local system of governance rather than seek recourse in higher-level courts. While the community council rulings are far less formal than ordinary criminal court proceedings, many accused criminals prefer to do community service. Community service can also be more of a disincentive to criminals than the unlikely possibility of arrest and trial by state or federal courts.
Meanwhile, the patrols in Xaltianguis have put an end to the town’s self-imposed after-dark curfew and have helped businesses operate normally again, no longer cowed by the threat of extortion—or worse. Alberto Castillo, 62, says that there’s more commercial activity in Xaltianguis now, since stores no longer close at dusk and the citizens feel safer at night.
Zarcotellos, ready to go out on patrol with the other women, agrees. “We were scared, but we came out strong,” she says, reflecting on the transformation in her community. “The first time we got together and did a patrol, it was extremely scary, but we made the effort to keep it going.”
She snaps her fingers and points her index finger out like a gun barrel.
“This group of women, they’re ready,” she says.
All photos courtesy of Nathaniel Parish Flannery.