XALTIANGUIS, Mexico – Inside a crowded marketplace in this tropical town in Guerrero state, an hour’s drive into the hills outside the Pacific Coast resort town of Acapulco, Angélica Romero waited for her turn at the butcher’s stand.
Outside, women chatted under the sun, buying fruit or looking at the bootleg CDs displayed next to the produce. A few blocks away, several men in tan T-shirts and shotguns stood guard at the town’s entrance, keeping them safe.
Just last year, residents here were paralyzed by fear of being kidnapped by gangs, armed robbers and extortionists. But then they decided to take the law into their own hands, banding together to form a militia earlier this year. The result was the crime wave coming to an end and community life slowly returning to normal.
Back in August, Romero and a group of other ladies joined the men and started armed patrols to help maintain the newfound tranquility. Now, every day dozens of women gather to walk through the streets of this mountain village with barely, 7,000 residents. Meanwhile, armed men stand guard at the community police command center and venture out in pickup trucks to investigate reports of suspicious activity and detain suspects, if necessary.
It’s not that they’re brave, everyone has fear. The people are just tired.
“My family was affected by the crime. There were kidnappings. One cousin was freed. Another was killed,” Romero explained. “We paid the [ransom] money but he never came back. They found him on a lot near here with a bullet in his head,” Romero added in a quiet, measured tone.
Her husband, Luis Hipólito, said of the women’s police patrol: “It’s not that they’re brave, everyone has fear. The people are just tired.”
At the beginning of the year, town leaders reached out to the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State (UPOEG), an established statewide network of community police. Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, has a long-time tradition of sending waves of immigrants north to the U.S. in search of work. The state also has long history of guerrilla activity.
Historically, towns in Guerrero have had rather tenuous ties to the federal government. Many have taken advantage of provisions in Mexico’s constitution that grant indigenous groups the right to enforce their own “customs and practices,” and maintain their own semi-autonomous police and justice systems.
Standing behind the butcher counter, Selsa Zarcotellos, a 43-year-old resident who commands the women’s patrols, explained the group’s history while absent-mindedly shooing flies off of the meat and pig’s head on the table. “The government didn’t do anything to help us,” said Zarcotellos, who lost her brother and a brother in law to the ruthless violence. “We couldn’t even send kids to school. I knew it would only end when the people armed themselves,” she said.
Outside the market, Alberto Castillo, a 62-year-old resident, explained, “the moment came when it became necessary. There was a lot of insecurity so the people rose up.”
Over the course of this year, the security dynamic in Xaltianguis has evolved dramatically. Twice a day, on early morning and mid-afternoon, several dozen women march together -- weapons at the ready -- through the streets. Their presence alone has proven to be a deterrent to would-be thieves and extortionists.
“The change has been good. You can breath easy [now]. People go out at night and there’s more commercial activity,” Castillo said. “We’re not against the government. We just want to have peace. If we can help the government so we can have security, we’ll do it.”
Over the last two years, the UPOEG and the Mexican army have both played a role in chasing hardened criminals out of town. When the UPOEG came to town, it fought and pushed out one group of kidnappers. On another occasion, army helicopters chased a band of kidnappers into the hills, rescuing a victim. On a daily basis, however, although army trucks pass through town, there are no soldiers stationed in the streets.
On a quiet, tree-lined street, Abundio Jiménez, a heavy-set 60-year-old man who returned to Xaltianguis after working as a migrant laborer in New Orleans, walked in front of a small, worn-down soccer field. Standing in front of a wooden cross that had been pushed into the dry dirt, Jiménez recalled the bloody incident that happened right there in the middle of a soccer match, after five or six gangsters with machine guns appeared out of nowhere. When a local man shot one of the attackers, they fired back killing him. A few minutes later, five bodies were lying on the street.
After this incident, Jiménez explained, “three convoys came, 40 soldiers or more.” But he added: “It’s all simulation. We ask for a roadblock at the entrance, they put soldiers there for a week,” he said.
Jiménez is convinced that the town’s people need to take an active role in protecting themselves. “There’s no other way, now all the pueblos that have become self-sufficient have seen a drop in violence,” he explained.
“The power really isn’t in the weapons, it’s in the unity, the change in the people’s attitude,” said Miguel Angel Jiménez, the wide-shouldered 43-year-old commander of Xaltianguis’ community police.
A few days earlier Commander Jiménez and his patrolmen detained a local criminal. They surrounded his house. He fired a shot, but with thirty militiamen outside, in the end he decided to try and hide rather than fight his way out. “The bad guys are few and we are many,” the commander explained.
Despite their success at the local level, Guerrero’s self-defense groups and armed citizens militias present a policy challenge for the federal government. In his State of the Union Address in September, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said “the government can’t tolerate anybody trying to take justice into his own hands.”
The distrust runs both ways in the hills outside Acapulco. “The government doesn’t want us to have good weapons. They say we are financed by narcos, but to the contrary, we are against [the criminals],” commander Jiménez said.
Mexico has extremely strict gun laws, but every year tens of thousands of military-grade weapons are sold at gun stores on the U.S. side of the border and smuggled illegally into Mexico.
As three dozen women in blue shirts emblazoned with the words “Community Police” gathered around him on the steps of the community police command center, commander Jiménez yelled out, “Who is to blame for the weapons coming into Mexico?”
“The government!” the women replied.
“And if they come for our guns, what will we do?” he asked.
“We’ll fight with frying pans!” one woman shouted.
“With knives!” another woman yelled.
Brenda Castillo, a 28-year-old mother and schoolteacher, whose husband was killed at the shootout at the soccer field, is now one of Xaltianguis’ militia members.
At first, Castillo's family was worried about her involvement with the community police, but now they support her. “We want to make it more peaceful. My daughters are happy. Before they didn’t play in the street because there were shootouts. Now they go out to play.”
Her mission is risky but worthy if for no other purpose than simply being able to see children at play.
“This is noble work. We fight for our people,” said Castillo. “We’re not guerillas, we just want peace."