Los Vigilantes de Tepito / Vigilantes in Mexico’s Capital (El Dominical)

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(English Version to follow)

Armados con walkie-talkie y placa de identificación, ellos patrullan uno de los barrios más peligrosos de la ciudad de México. Es un grupo, integrado principalmente por ciudadanos, el que brinda seguridad en un área que la policía no puede o no quiere proteger. Se autodenominan “policía comunitaria”, el gobierno mexicano los llama “grupos de autodefensa”, pero comúnmente se les conoce como “vigilantes”. Trabajan en el barrio de Tepito y provienen de los más diversos estilos de vida. Antes de ser vigilantes, algunos eran ladrones u oficiales de policía.

Los grupos de vigilantes mexicanos han acaparado los titulares internacionales debido a los actos de extrema violencia ocurridos en Guerrero y Michoacán. Ahí, la creciente violencia relacionada con los cárteles y la falta del cumplimiento de la ley ha obligado a los ciudadanos a hacer justicia por su propia mano, a veces de formas muy severas. Pero los vigilantes también existen en la capital, donde son resultado, ya no de la violencia relacionada con el narco, sino de una falta de vigilancia policial y del sentimiento generalizado de inseguridad y frustración. En Tepito, una zona conocida por su alto índice de criminalidad, los vigilantes son también un intento de involucrar a los vecinos en los asuntos comunitarios.

Pero en el D.F. los vigilantes no son un fenómeno, ya existían en ciertas áreas de Tepito, y colaboraban con la policía desde hace cuatro años.

“Sólo queremos que los clientes que lleguen a Tepito tengan la seguridad de que nadie les va a robar. La policía no puede darnos ese servicio”, dice don Miguel Galán, líder de la Asociación de Comerciantes Establecidos y Semifijos del tianguis de Tepito.

El área de don Miguel en el tianguis es de 4 x 4 cuadras con 800 a 1000 vendedores aproximadamente, que no es más una fracción del tianguis de Tepito, estimado en veinte cuadras y con una cantidad de 10 000 a 15 000 vendedores. Hay policías en la zona, pero son insuficientes y, a menudo, perezosos o corruptos.

De acuerdo con una vendedora de periódicos, los policías se hacen de la vista gorda ante robos que ocurren justo frente a ellos. Cuando, un día, ella se enfrentó a un policía y le preguntó por qué no hacía su trabajo, la respuesta fue que no quería ponerse a sí mismo en peligro.  La policía sabe que comparte el área con criminales y que, si los arrestan, corren el riesgo de sufrir represalias por parte de éstos. Por esta razón, la percepción es que los policías son perezosos y trabajan por sus propios intereses, no por la seguridad de los vendedores.

(Para leer el artículo completo, diríjase al Dominical.  Traduccíon de Penélope Córdoba)

Vigilantes in Mexico’s Capital

They patrol the streets in one of Mexico City’s dodgiest neighbourhoods armed only with walkie-talkies and a simple nametag around their necks.  A group of mostly local citizens, they provide security for people in the area that the local police force can’t, or won’t.  They call themselves community police, the Mexican government refers to them as an auto-defense group, but they’re more commonly known as vigilantes.  In the area of Tepito in Mexico City, the vigilantes come from all walks of life including ex-thieves from the neighbourhood and ex-police officers who have left the force because of issues of internal corruption.

Vigilante groups in Mexico have been making international headlines for violent or extreme acts in the states of Guerrero and Michoacan.  Here, vigilantism has sprung up in response to the increasing cartel violence and a lack of law enforcement in the area forcing citizens to take the law into their own hands – sometimes in very severe ways.  But vigilantes also exist in Mexico City.  In the country’s capital vigilante groups aren’t a response to the country’s cartel related violence, rather, they’re a response to a more general lack of policing and mass feelings of insecurity and frustration.  In Tepito, an area known for its high crime rate, vigilante groups are also an attempt to engage local residents in community issues.

But vigilantes in D.F. are not a new phenomenon.  They have existed in certain areas of Tepito, working alongside the police, for the past four years.

Located near Mexico City’s downtown core, Tepito is renown for having one of the city’s oldest and largest tianguis’ – an open air street market – but is also renown for it’s high crime rate and having one of the largest collections of pirated music, movies and software, along with other unspeakable underground activity.  Because tianguis’ only make cash transactions, shoppers and vendors are assumed to be holding a lot of cash, which is one reason why tianguis’ tend to be a hot bed for pickpockets and theft – especially the tianguis in Tepito.  The residential area around the tianguis is also one of the more marginalized neighbourhoods of the city.

“We just want for the buyer who comes to shop at Tepito to have the certainty that they’re not going to be robbed.  The police cannot give us that service,” says Don Miguel Galán, leader of the Asociacíon de Comerciantes Establecidos y Semifijos tianguis of Tepito.

Galán’s tianguis area in Tepito is about 4 X 4 city blocks with approximately  800-1,000 vendors working within it – only a fraction of the whole Tepito tianguis that’s estimated to be 20 blocks with 10,000-15,000 vendors.  Police do exist in the area, but not in any great numbers and they’re often thought to be lazy or corrupt.

According to one magazine vendor in Tepito, police officers often turn their back on theft happening right in front of them.  When one day she accused a policeman of doing this, and asked why he didn’t do his job properly, his response was that they don’t make arrests because they don’t want to put themselves in danger.  Because the police know they’re sharing the area with criminals, actually arresting thieves puts the police at risk of retaliation from these criminal groups, according to the vendor.  The police are thus seen as lazy and working only for their own interests and not for the security of the vendors.

The vigilantes, on the other hand, are seen as part of the community.  Most of them live in the area and are more trusted, for the most part.  They patrol the narrow alleyways saying hello to the vendors and joking around with them.  They ask if there are any issues and if everything is going OK.  The police tend to stand motionless in particular places throughout the day and don’t interact with the vendors.  For this reason, the vendors see the police as an alien entity who don’t understand them or the issues they have to deal with in the tianguis.

Initially the vigilante group here was small and consisted mainly of ex-police officers who left their profession for one reason or another.  Miguel Barcenas and his brother Raul have been vigilantes in Don Galán’s area in Tepito for years.  Both brothers were once police officers, and both left because of internal corruption in the force.  In Miguel’s case, he served as a police officer for 12 years prior to working as a vigilante in Tepito.

“I always had the impulse to protect, to help people,” he said.  “So, what could I do?  I joined the police.”

In his time in the force, Barcenas had served in several different special units and received several promotions for outstanding service.  One year however, he was given a big murder case to work on, and after closing the case things started to turn sour for his career.  He was rerouted and demoted for unknown reasons, and he and his family were once shot at.

Though he didn’t know where the threats were coming from, he knew he had been stepping on toes within the force.  Over the years he had arrested other officers, mostly for cases of corruption and money laundering, he says.  He also suspected that there were larger powers behind his recently appointed murder case, but he was never able to prove it.  Eventually, he was rerouted to a team where the sergeant officially accused him of corruption, what Barcenas said was a false accusation not founded on any evidence.  Nevertheless, he was asked to leave the force.  That was the end of his career.

“Sometimes, to do things well is not good,” he says, reflecting on his past.  “There are many things I don’t understand.  It’s the system, this is Mexico.”

After months of being unemployed, his brother, who was already working as a vigilante in Tepito, hooked him up with a similar position where he’s been ever since.

In October of 2012, Don Galán approached Barcenas and said that they would start recruiting local members of the community to increase security in Tepito.  This is part of Don Galán’s threefold plan to ameliorate the working conditions for the vendors in Tepito, and the millions other Mexicans working in the informal economy across the country:  first to improve security, second to improve access to healthcare, and third to help vendors access lines of credit to be able to compete with big business.

Now, with the first of these plans put into motion, 16 young men work as vigilantes in the area, most of whom have no experience in law enforcement.  Their backgrounds vary but many of them used to be known thieves in the area, and recruiting them was no accident.

“The branch that rules has to be from the same tree,” says Don Galán.  Meaning, it takes a thief to understand how to catch a thief, to know what to look for and what to expect.

But this hiring procedure was also more than just a patrolling strategy.  According to both Barcenas and Don Galán, vigilantism allows these young men to have a second chance.  In their past, they’ve had to resort to theft for one reason or another and now they’re stigmatized for life, and lacking options.  Here in Mexico, says Barcenas, once you’re accused of something you’re socially tainted – something he had direct experience with in the force.  Offering ex-thieves positions as vigilantes encourages them to do something serious with their lives, and teaches them not to be ashamed of themselves or their pasts (something that could ultimately lead to a lifetime of theft and crime).  By recruiting specifically local men, it also gives them a semblance of contributing to and helping their community and families.

These new vigilantes aren’t all thieves however.  Oscar, who lives in Tepito, used to be a chef until he realized that he would never be able to advance or get a really good job unless he had University qualifications– something he can’t afford to do.  So, he became a vigilante in Tepito – a job that asks only for a willingness to work, that you be from the area and that you hold identification papers.

(The extended version, not printed in Dominical)

The first thing the men are taught when they become vigilantes is that others around them now have expectations of them that they must live up to.  According to Barcenas, implanting this feeling of responsibility is enough to start to change attitudes.  The vigilantes here aren’t armed and they focus mainly on preventative measures.  They tell shoppers not to wear visible chains or other jewelry, not to handle their cash in the open, and tourists to keep their cameras out of view.  Since they’re not official police, they only have authority to make citizen arrests and wait for the police to come and take over – what is legal under the constitution.

The vigilantes are taught to watch people, to know people, and to project the image of a vigilante.  According to Barcenas, the mere presence of authority is enough to deter thieves, so a lot of emphasis is put on composure and attitude. The next step, he says, will be to teach the new vigilantes The Constitution – something he says is essential to good policing, but also something they were never taught in the police academy.

According to Barcenas, there are three major differences between being a police officer and being a vigilante: you don’t have a badge, you don’t have any benefits or social security, and often you have no social position since vigilantism isn’t an officially recognized profession.  Clearly there is a major systemic rejection of vigilantism that can be felt by the vigilantes themselves.

In March, the mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, announced that vigilantes would not be tolerated in the city, speaking specifically to the vigilante groups in Tepito.  The mayor based his decision on the fact that vigilante groups in other states like Guerreo and Michoacan have proven to be very violent.  But according to don Galán, the vigilantes in Tepito aren’t armed and they focus mainly on the philosophy of preventative policing rather than direct law enforcement.

According to don Galán, prior to October there was at least one theft a day in the tianguis, but in the months of November and December combined there were only 10 cases of theft.  Thus for them, the presence of vigilantes has made a huge impact on security in the area. 

Since the mayor’s denouncement of vigilantes, there have been no attempts to offer more police or other services to the area to help improve security in Tepito.  According to Barcenas, the police that are in the area have stopped co-operating with vigilantes and have been even less present than before.

It’s true that the existence of vigilantes indicates a major problem in society when citizens stop being able to rely on the state to feel secure, but they do offer an alternative in a system where people continuously feel insecure and ignored.

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