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Feature 021813 Indigenous rights

Monday, February 18, 2013 

Indigenous Rights, Self-protection and Vigilantes in Mexico

Frontera NorteSur

In the wave of citizen uprisings against insecurity that have swept the southern Mexican state of Guerrero since the beginning of the year, fundamental issues defining the future of the nation are at stake. Far from being just a pent-up reaction to long-running public safety problems, the uprisings involve indigenous rights, the relationship between the State and its citizenry, and the nature and future of governance in a country still submerged in a justice crisis.

Following the examples of anti-crime uprisings that erupted in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero in 2011 and 2012, upwards of 800 people set up roadblocks and took charge of public security on January 5 in Ayutla de Los Libres and three other municipalities in the Costa Chica region of Guerrero, an impoverished area southeast of the tourist resort of Acapulco which had been increasingly subjected to extortion and violence by organized criminal gangs. Wearing masks to protect their identities, many of the people guarding the roadblocks were armed with guns or machetes.

Added to a recent spate of kidnappings, ultimatums for young girls to provide sex services or watch their families get killed were a final straw according to one movement coordinator. “We could not tolerate this,” said the man, who declined to give his name for security reasons.

The movement, based in predominantly indigenous communities with ties to the Union of Peoples and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), spread to dozens of other Mixteco and Nahua communities in the Costa Chica, La Montaña, Central and Northern regions of Guerrero. Varying with the location, classes were suspended, evening curfews instituted and demands issued for a greater presence of the Mexican armed forces and official security forces.

Bruno Placido, UPOEG leader, explained the movement’s goal at a February 4 meeting in the state capital of Chilpancingo. The UPOEG, Placido said, intends to curb criminal activity in a less bloody manner than the administration of former President Felipe Calderon, whose anti-drug offensive was characterized by the activist as a war against the poor.

“Nowadays, we have a delinquency tolerated by the State, the delinquents extort us with the law in their hand,” Placido said. “The delinquents humiliate us because they want political control, as if Guerrero was their ranch.”

In different raids, armed citizens detained 54 suspects and charged them with crimes ranging from extortion to murder; the suspects could face a popular trial based on indigenous customs in the municipality of Tecoanapa on February 22. The process is being monitored by the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain, an internationally-recognized human rights advocacy organization based in Tlalpa, Guerrero. Movement activists have been quoted as saying that suspects found guilty could get sentences of community work and reeducation rather than incarceration in a penitentiary system.

In a recent popular arraignment of the suspects in Ayutla, victims and victimizers delivered emotional testimonies in the presence of hundreds of people. A crying man in a wheel chair described his brutal kidnapping, but said none of the perpetrators were among the assembled suspects. A hooded 12-year-old boy said he had been undergoing training to become a “damn hit man,” and as part of the course he had been forced to watch murders and body dismemberments

The son of a woman who emigrated to the U.S. nine years ago, the boy said his grandmother urged him to testify and begin walking a straight path in life. “That’s why I decided to come,” he added. “It’s important for parents to take care of their children.”

The prospect of a popular trial in which the fates of defendants will be decided without lawyers and judges has ignited local and national polemics, with plenty of pros, cons and in-betweens heard about the self-defense movement. The official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), for instance, denounced the pending popular trial as a violation of Article 17 of the Mexican Constitution. Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre, who is walking a delicate political tightrope in trying to reassert state authority in a region where it has all but evaporated while simultaneously reaching out to the communities involved in the uprisings, has urged that the 54 suspects be turned over to official justice institutions. According to Placido, the UPOEG is deciding whether to turn over the suspects.

Movement defenders base their actions on indigenous rights to autonomy and self-determination guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution, Guerrero state law 701, and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

Media coverage of the uprisings has often failed to address the indigenous rights question, framing the issue as one of vigilantism. A lengthy Wall Street Journal piece, for example, gave great detail on the crime wave that motivated Costa Chica residents into action, but completely omitted any discussion of indigenous rights.

In a column, prominent Mexican human rights attorney Vidulfo Rosales Sierra contended that criticisms of the movement’s right to detain and try delinquents contain racist and colonialist tinges. “(Indigenous people) are original peoples who existed before the State, who had a culture, a form of social organization and their own systems of justice,” Rosales wrote.

Other criticisms of the uprisings have been forthcoming. Some residents have accused the armed security patrols of detaining or accusing innocent people. One man was shot to death after allegedly ignoring an order to stop at a roadblock, while a group of tourists from Mexico City that apparently failed to heed another roadblock was also reportedly fired upon, leaving one man slightly wounded.

Coahuila Bishop Raul Vera, a leading Mexican human rights advocate, warned that the practice of wearing masks to conceal identities could leave the movement open to criminal infiltration. Subsequently, movement leaders declared that security personnel would remove their masks.

The uprisings have also laid bare differences between the UPOEG and an older, well-established organization, the Coordinator of Regional Authorities (CRAC). Since 1995, the CRAC has led the community policing movement in indigenous communities of the Costa Chica and La Montaña regions of Guerrero, where the group has implemented a crime prevention and justice system based on indigenous customs.

While sharing a similar self-defense ethic with the UPOEG, the CRAC has disassociated itself from the most recent uprisings, and even criticized the UPOEG for acting in a manner that could led to the further militarization of the region. Joining the CRAC in the militarization critique was the Popular Citizen Police of Temalacatzingo, a group founded after an armed, anti-crime uprising last year.

Although the self-defense movement is not explicitly anti-government, some analysts suggest that the very sight of thousands of armed civilians set off alarm bells of rebellion and renewed guerrilla activity among some authorities.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Costa Chica was a base of support for the ACNR guerrilla movement led by Genaro Vasquez Rojas; later, in the 1990s, leftist guerrillas from the Popular Revolutionary Army and the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) appeared on the scene. In June 1998, Mexican soldiers killed four ERPI members and seven farmers in an attack on a school house in El Charco, a village not far from the municipal seat of Ayutla.

Many indigenous residents of the Costa Chica and La Montaña have demanded the withdrawal of the Mexican army because of alleged human rights abuses. In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Mexican government responsible for the rapes of two indigenous women near Ayutla by soldiers.

Shades of Chiapas after the Zapatista uprising, the Mexican government has now pledged money and created a special commission to address not only the security issue in the Costa Chica and other indigenous regions of Guerrero, but economic and other grievances as well. Immediately prior to the establishment of the special commission, the state government of PRD Governor Aguirre signed a January 31 agreement with the federal government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples that committed an investment of more than $55 million for the improvement of infrastructure in Guerrero’s marginalized indigenous communities; most of the project budget will come from federal funds, with the state share amounting to less than $10 million.

Dubbed the Commission for the Harmony and Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADEPI), the special commission held its first meeting in Chilpancingo on February 4. The commission, Governor Aguirre said, “will help to push a state policy that benefits without exclusion all the indigenous peoples of Guerrero, removed from the boundaries of government and electoral calendars.” Mexico and Guerrero, Aguirre said, owe a “historic debt” to the nation’s indigenous peoples.

The UPOEG and CRAC attended the Chilpancingo meeting as observers, but reserved the right to endorse the commission. Speaking at the meeting, UPOEG leader Bruno Placido said the pertinent issues went beyond security per se, adding that “people are struggling for a change -- a bigger budget for the countryside, for education….”

Also addressing the audience, the CRAC’s Pablo Guzman said his organization had no need to justify its existence to government authorities. “We are legitimate because our people elected us,” Guzman said. The police, who are citizens in good standing, are named in a big community assembly….”

Attended by hundreds, a February 5 follow-up meeting of the CADEPI in Ayutla saw the establishment of 14 work groups dedicated to security and justice, education, health, jobs, electricity rates, and other popular concerns.

In the weeks and months ahead, the negotiating and possible deal-making involving the Guerrero state government, the CADEPI, the UPOEG, the CRAC and perhaps other actors will shape the outcomes of the winter uprisings, which could be far from over.

Guerrero columnist and blogger Marco Mendez warned of a government “counter-offensive” to divide and disarm the communities, weakening the citizen movements and leaving the population extremely exposed to a violent return of the organized criminal groups who would then “teach a lesson” to the public.

Meanwhile, self-defense movement activists assert that their uprising has dramatically reduced crime and restored tranquility to Ayutla and other places.

“Ayutla turned into a place where nobody could talk or say anything, where nobody went out at night,” UPOEG leader Rene Gutierrez was quoted as saying. “Everyone knew what was going on and who the criminals were. We were accomplices until we got tired of it all … we wanted to defend our people, and that’s not criminal.”

Sources: El Sur, January 8 and 31, 2013; February 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, 2013. Articles by Zacarias Cervantes, Hugo Pacheco Leon, Eduardo Albaran, Rosalba Ramirez Garcia, Gregorio Urieta, Vidulfo Rosales Sierra, Sergio Ferrer, and Marco Mendez. Televisa, February 4, 2013. Despertar de la Costa, February 4, 2013. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), February 1, 2013. Article by Margena de la O. CNN Mexico, February 1, 2013. Article by Daniel Rea. Proceso, January 27, 2013. Article by Ezequiel Flores Contreras.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source; translation FNS

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