LA CONCEPCION, Mexico – The brothers leading the nearly 15-year fight against a Mexico dam project have been hailed as environmental heroes, but after a confused gunfight between their vigilante forces and other townsfolk, they are now in jail facing homicide charges.
Some residents of the communities around the proposed La Parota dam near Acapulco say the Suastegui brothers have been oppressors who used their "community police" vigilante group to attack elected officials who didn't agree with them.
Those disputes erupted into a Jan. 7 confrontation between villagers in which eight were killed — six villagers and two from the anti-dam police force — followed by a state police raid in which in which three more anti-dam vigilantes died.
It is the latest in a series of conflicts that have erupted across parts of southern Mexico where townsfolk, usually fed up with violence and corrupt police, have created their own "community police" forces with no allegiance — and often outright hostility — to elected authorities.
La Concepcion is one of numerous small communities in the mountains east of Acapulco that have been split by federal plans for the vast hydroelectric project. All or parts of two dozen villages would disappear under the reservoir's waters. But some communities downstream, which won't be flooded, support the dam, which would bring jobs to the impoverished region.
"The towns are divided by politics because the government divides the people," said Leandro Elacio, coordinator of the group whose name roughly translates as the Council of Communities Opposed to the La Parota Dam. Elacio claims government aid programs are given to dam supporters and not opponents, and that gravel companies offer local households as little as 1,000 pesos per year for the right to scoop out the bed of the river to use in construction, damaging the environment.
Since 2003, the anti-dam group founded by Vicente and Marco Antonio Suastegui has managed to block the hydroelectric project on the Papagayo, successfully arguing in court that the government had meddled with local assemblies in the 47 towns and hamlets in the watershed that have to vote to approve the project.
The Suasteguis and some of the group's other leaders have been arrested several times over protests against the project, and assert they were tortured.
Three years ago, the opponents took a step further: They formed a community police force of almost 100 men, claiming their authority from show-of-hands community assemblies that they say has more validity than official elections.
Such groups are common in tightly knit indigenous communities where centuries-old practices include rule by a council of elders and cooperative community work. They punish minor crimes with work, short imprisonment and re-adaptation. A Guerrero state law specifically allows indigenous communities to form such police forces.
But disgust with police corruption and drug gang violence has led people in other parts of Guerrero and neighboring states to form their own versions of citizen police — vigilante groups that sometimes battle the cartels and in some cases have been infiltrated by them. And they often find themselves in conflict with elected authorities, as in La Concepcion, a town of about 1,300 people.
One of those authorities, recently elected town manager Lucio Mendez, had been taken prisoner by the community police three days before the clash broke out. A dam supporter, he says he was unjustly held because of differences of opinion. The community police accused the nearly toothless farmer of leading an armed plot to kill vigilante leader Marco Antonio Suastegui.
"They started to beat me, they ordered my head shaved," he said.
"My head was bleeding because they cut me with the scissors," he recalled. "They put chains on me ... and a sign that said 'I am the future town manager, and I am being re-educated,' and they walked me around, with no shoes ... to humiliate me."
Dam opponent Elacio says the community police force was attacked on Jan. 7 by a shadowy group of armed, masked strangers in pre-dawn darkness. "It was an ambush by the government, by armed, masked people we don't know who were paid by the government," he said.
Given the small-town nature of La Concepcion, however, it's likely both sides knew each other all too well.
What happened, as far can be pieced together from a visit to the scene and some witnesses, is that longstanding resentments between the two sides broke into open violence.
Community police found a local youth urinating near their command post, then chased and caught him about 50 yards (meters) away at the town council office, where six men were chatting in the wake of a late-night town celebration.
Outgoing town manager Florentino Melchor said his brother told the vigilantes to stop beating the man, and they then turned on him, trying to drag him away. The brother apparently pulled out a gun and killed two of the vigilantes.
"They grabbed my brother, and my brother defended himself," Melchor said.
The community police then returned and riddled the men at the town manager's office with bullets, killing all six.
Mendez, meanwhile, was listening to the gunfire and commotion from his improvised cell at the community police headquarters. At first, Mendez said, he thought his jailers would kill him.
A few hours later, though, he saw a first wave of state police arrive, only to retreat in the face of protests by dam opponents. Mendez said he thought they would leave and abandon the prisoners until he heard a drone and a helicopter and saw a second wave of police advancing on the vigilantes' headquarters.
In the following confrontation, three people died, all of them community police.
The Guerrero state government said in a statement that they had resisted. The human rights group Tlachinollan said police executed two of the community police members on the spot after they had surrendered and a third died in unclear circumstances.
Even Mendez, who hoped state police would save him, said that chaotic police gunfire wounded two of his fellow detainees when police tried to shoot the lock off the door of their impromptu prison.
"I yelled to them that we were victims, that we had wounded people inside, that they should stop firing," recalled Mendez. Police finally freed them, ordered them to lie face down and took them to a hospital.
About two dozen dam opponents were arrested and remain imprisoned.
Human rights have overwhelmingly backed the community police, citing the deaths of three and irregularities in the arrests.
But pro-dam residents of La Concepcion feel forgotten, saying there are two sides to the story.
"The human rights people defend the community police, but what about us?" Mendez asked. "What are we, animals?"