Tilapa: Lessons from the Me’phaa People on Territorial Protection against Organized Crime

In a country devastated by criminal violence, a small town in the mountains of Guerrero shows the way to confront this scourge. Photo: Amapola

Crystal arrived to this hidden piece of La Montaña, the Me’Phaa people of Tilapa, about three years ago.

The name of the drug sounds nice, it even has elegance, but the skinny, malnourished, out-of-this-world Me’Phaa adolescents are light years away from looking that way.

People who use crystal or amphetamines become skinny to the bone. They don’t get sleepy, so they get dark circles under their eyes that make them look like they’ve risen from their graves. Logic would say that it is difficult for them to move. But it’s not like that. They become hyperactive. The problem is that the crystal melts your neurons and turns your immune system into a mess.

In several communities in the High Mountain region, it is recorded that adolescents and young people consume drugs, mainly crystal or methamphetamines, although they are not the only illicit substances that enter the communities, some of them ancestral, revealed members of the civil association Integral Processes for the People’s Self-Management (PIAP), an organization that advises the Mountain communities in this new fight for the defense of the territory.

The region is a national benchmark in the fight against mining. The community organization of its inhabitants, based on collective decision-making, was the difference with other towns in Mexico where mining companies either co-opted or bought or silenced those who opposed.

In 2013, several communities in the Mountains created the Regional Council of Agrarian Authorities in Defense of the Territory (CREADET) to oppose gold exploitation and achieved the cancellation of the Corazón de Tinieblas mining project.

The town authorities believe that the addiction of adolescents and young people is induced from outside to weaken the social fabric of the communities, and the operator of this offensive is organized crime.

The difference between Tilapa and other communities in the high mountains and perhaps with the rest of the population in Mexico where organized crime took social and economic control, is that here, the inhabitants exposed it in an assembly and, although they are afraid, they decided to confront it.

“What do we do with our young addicts?” they asked themselves.

Before answering that essential question to save their children, adolescents and young people, and also to save themselves as a community, they asked themselves another question: “How do drugs get here?”

Tilapa, the Me’Phaa town that makes the difference

Tilapa looks more like a coastal town than a thick mountain forest. Due to these climatic and orographic characteristics, in Guerrero there is the Costa Chica-Montaña subregion, which is made up of a strip of communities of municipalities from both regions in which the transition between humid forests and warm jungles is observed.

In Tilapa, located 1110 meters above sea level, there are mangoes, bananas, soursops, coffee and the occasional coconut palm. It is a town sheltered by high mountains that can be reached through Tlapa, to the north of the community, two hours away. To the south, Tilapa has the Pacific coastline, which can be reached through San Luis Acatlán in just 40 minutes. In Tilapa, they connect the two ecosystems. In a brief summary, it could be said that Tilapa is more coast than mountain. It is intensely hot and moderately cold.

This Monday, April 8th, as is normal in the spring season, it is intensely hot in Tilapa. Here it does not seem that the sun is going to disappear under the shadow of the moon, which is supposed to happen between ten and twelve o’clock in the day, according to astronomers about the solar eclipse that will be seen at 70% in the states of the south and totally in the north of Mexico.

This day of the astronomical phenomenon is also the date on which Tilapa announced the birth of its own justice system, an agreement that was reached in discussions about what to do with young addicts and some investigations into how drugs reach the community.

After a year of informative assemblies in all neighborhoods and annexes, the assembly agreed to design a territorial security system different from that of the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities-Community Police (CRAC-PC), which was born in the now new municipality of Santa Cruz del Rincón – just 20 minutes from Tilapa – 29 years ago.

The inhabitants of Tilapa named this new community justice system Indigenous Territorial Reservation Security (SERTI), and its main objective is to defend the territory “from whoever threatens our social, productive, and economic processes; of natural, environmental goods; of governance, territorial and against our communality,” reads the founding document.

This process was accompanied by La Montaña Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center and PIAP.

What do we do with young addicts?

Tilapa is a town of 1,181 people, according to the 2020 Population Census of the INEGI. Here, everyone knows each other and knows what everyone does; also, their family problems, such as violence, alcoholism and drug problems.

Three years ago, the population learned of the first cases of drug addiction.

“There were problems with that, but it was sporadic. There were one or two young men who we knew were using,” acknowledged a community resident.

The problem grew quickly; the cases multiplied. For this reason, about a year and a half ago, on the tenth anniversary of CREADET, it was proposed that organized crime was a new threat to the territory and community organization.They identified that induced drug addiction was the new way crime used to undermine communities.

Tilapa began this process along with other communities in the Montaña-Costa Chica, but it was the first to find a way out of the problem.

“This process has been very intense in the area. Each community has its own process, according to its own times and rhythms. In the case of Tilapa, its assembly determined to create a territorial security system,” said a PIAP member.

Part of the process they went through in each community is the response to the complex situation of what to do with young addicts.

In the case of Tilapa, from three sporadic cases of drug addiction, they jumped to around 30, revealed one resident.

In the assembly, they discussed how to address consumer cases with families.

“The first to oppose are the mothers, who are embarrassed by their children’s drug use and those who oppose their children, if they commit a crime, being brought before the authorities,” commented the resident who participates in this process. in Tilapa.

The first people who must be convinced that action be taken on their children’s drug use problem are mothers and fathers. It was agreed to talk to these families about the emergence of violence derived from crime, and to give talks to the rest of the adolescents and young people, in their own schools, about drugs and their effects.

In April 2023, the date on which the assembly agreed to create the community justice system, they also agreed to respond to the concern of how drugs get here.

Community members said that the first agreement was to cut off the entry of drugs, for which they had to know how they reached the community. There have been some eye-opening findings.

“So far, drug entry has been detected through public transportation; also through merchandise delivery people and, in some cases, through teachers who are not from here, but who work in the area.”

The anthropologist Abel Barrera, coordinator of Tlachinollan, suggested to the residents of Tilapa and the members of the Serti to develop a diagnosis that indicates from within the community who are those who are with the people and who are inclined to break the structures that hold the community together.

La Montaña and organized crime

The crime map in Guerrero from the state security cabinet establishes that Tilapa is part of the area controlled by the organized crime group Los Ardillos. 26 municipalities in the Central, Montaña and Costa Chica Zones in which this organized criminal group operates have a light blue tone. The municipality of Malinaltepec is one of them.

In other municipalities of the Mountain such as Tlapa and Olinalá, the criminal map says that Los Ardillos fight for control of those municipalities with Los Rojos, which is why they have two colors: light blue and dark brown. Malinaltepec is not fighting with anyone, according to this map.

Malinaltepec is currently governed by Acasio Flores Guerrero, of the Social Encounter Party (PES), but three years ago it was in the hands of MORENA, six years ago the PT, nine years ago the PRD and 12 years ago the PRI dominated.

The mayor of Malinaltepec was present this Monday, April 8th, at the installation and swearing in of the members of the SERTI and promised to the counselors of honor and justice, the commander and the 19 community police officers who conform that “you will not be alone, let’s walk together.”

The mayor also provided uniforms, two 12-gauge shotguns and cash for their first month of operation, a resource that will continue to flow for them to operate. 

Women in the Indigenous Territorial Reservation Security System (SERTI)

The acronym says nothing. The name reveals everything. This community justice system that began operating this Monday, April 8th in Tilapa, will be in charge of protecting the indigenous territory.

The authorities of Tilapa, the municipal commissioner, the Communal Property Commissioner and the Surveillance Council prepared a positioning document on the creation of their Indigenous Territorial Protection Security-Community Police (SERTI-PC) system.

SERTI, the community authorities explain, is a justice system whose highest authority is the General Assembly, made up of the inhabitants of Tilapa, which will resolve those cases in which, due to its complexity, the governance structure of SERTI cannot resolve, with which – they warn – “we will never have a justice system that acts outside of community governance.”

The RTI governance structure is made up of five counselors of honor and justice, the command, made up of a first and second commander, and the police force. 19 police officers and the two commanders were sworn in.

On Monday, this structure was sworn, and each councilor of honor and justice were given a baton of command.

The General Assembly decided that there would be five councilors, three men and two women.

The lawyer Vicencia Espíndola Cantú is one of the councilors. She is a single mother of a teenager. Vicencia read the position of the Tilapa authorities at the SERTI installation assembly. The Assembly elected her to stand up to this organization against organized crime and her people elected her councilor.

In this type of responsibilities granted by the people, there is no option to reject. Vicenza didn’t plan to do it either, but she is convinced that her marital had an influence.

After being sworn in, the members of the Council of Honor and Justice cut the inaugural ribbon of what will be the office of the new community organization.

This Tuesday, April 9th, Vicencia spent the entire day in her new office, a task that she, she is sure, would not be able to do if she had a husband and several daughters and sons to take care of her.

The other counselor, teacher Esther Mendoza Bernardino, is a widow and mother of daughters and sons already married.

Original article at https://www.chiapasparalelo.com/noticias/2024/04/tilapa-lecciones-del-pueblo-mephaa-sobre-resguardo-territorial-contra-el-crimen-organizado/

Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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