2003International Reporting

In Mexico Hinterland, Life Beyond the Law

Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
March 15, 2002;
Page A01

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DOS RIOS, Mexico -- Teofilo Gonzalez Cano stabbed his cousin to death with two quick jabs to the heart.

They had been the best of friends, growing up together in the same mud-brick house in this tiny village in southern Mexico. But one night they drank themselves nearly blind on homemade grain alcohol. An argument about nothing got out of hand, and soon Vicente Gonzalez Santiago lay dead in the dirt.

Teofilo ran. They found him at dawn, sitting in a forest clutching his empty bottle. The local farmer who served as village constable, another cousin of Teofilo's, bound his hands behind his back and brought him in.

The whole village was waiting, more than 300 people. They forced Teofilo to lie facedown next to Vicente's corpse. They shouted at him, called him a murderer. His mother sat in the dirt next to her son, pleading for mercy.

The nearest police were more than two hours' drive away and there was no telephone in Dos Rios, hidden in rugged mountains 180 miles southwest of Mexico City. Justice in this backwater belongs to a half-dozen town elders, who stood over the two cousins in their early thirties, one dead and one accused, and debated the punishment that day in 1999. Finally they agreed.

"They said the two of them should be buried together," said Catarina Cano Santiago, Teofilo's mother.

According to Cano, other Dos Rios residents and human rights investigators, the elders enlisted villagers to carry out the sentence. Some of the men hacked a grave in the rocky soil of the village cemetery. Someone banged together a flimsy wooden coffin, and the villagers put Vicente's body in it. They hoisted the box and began a procession down a narrow cow path to the graveyard. Others dragged Teofilo by the arms. Women and children followed, marching under a hot sun past fields of dead corn.

They placed Vicente's coffin in the hole, then threw Teofilo in on top, with his arms and legs tied together. He screamed and begged for his life, calling out to his mother, "Please don't let them do this to me!" She tried to help him, but her neighbors and friends held her back. The law had spoken, and no one would stand in its way.

Twenty men started throwing dirt into the hole with shovels and sticks. Teofilo, screaming, tried to climb out. His 14-year-old son, Felipe, ran to him and tried to hug him and pull him up. Someone tossed a lasso around Teofilo's neck and jerked him back into the grave, ripping him from his boy's embrace. They pulled the crying youth away from his father as the dirt piled higher and higher on top of him, until he disappeared into the ground.

"When they finished," said his mother, "you could still hear him screaming under the ground."

Challenge of Modernization

Dos Rios is a dusty wisp of a village clinging to a mountainside in Guerrero state. It takes 12 hours to drive there from the capital, down a road that turns from pavement to dirt to a harrowing path that drops thousands of feet on either side.

Fewer than 400 people live in Dos Rios, in a cluster of soft-brick huts baked by a close, heavy sun. There is no electricity, not a light bulb in town. The only vehicle is an old Ford pickup truck. A priest comes once a year to say Mass in the crumbling Roman Catholic church. It has been months since a police patrol passed through.

As Mexico seeks to modernize, setting up a formal justice system in places like this is one of its most difficult challenges.

Mexico has more than 148,000 communities with fewer than 100 residents, many of them isolated in the vast stretches of mountains and deserts that cover much of this country. By comparison, the United States, which has five times more land area, has fewer than 2,000 towns with populations under 100.

More than 25 million Mexicans -- a quarter of the population -- live in communities of 2,500 people or fewer. Government officials say it is simply too expensive to run roads and electric lines to many of them, let alone provide police, prosecutors and judges. As a result, millions of Mexicans live in places that remain largely beyond the law.

"The rule of law is absent in these towns. The level of impunity is extremely high," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico's new ambassador to the United Nations, who served until recently as national security adviser.

He said the administration of President Vicente Fox is working to equip rural police with satellite communication systems and create more uniform police coverage around the country. But he said many state and local government officials have resisted that idea because they still operate under the practices that dominated during seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. For years, he said, the PRI encouraged powerful local bosses to handle justice in their own way.

Abel Barrera, a human rights activist based in Tlapa, near Dos Rios, called justice in Mexico "unbalanced."

"Things have changed in the cities, but in parts of the country like this, here in the countryside, violence is still the accepted mechanism of justice," said Barrera, who investigated the Teofilo Gonzalez Cano case. "It's still the law of the jungle."

There is no formal accounting of how many people are killed in Mexico's rough rural justice every year. But human rights groups estimate that hundreds have been killed and hundreds more beaten over the years in punishments meted out beyond official scrutiny. Barrera said at least 10 people a year are killed in the region around Dos Rios in a form of local justice.

"People here have not yet taken notice that Mexico is changing," Barrera said.

Equal protection under the law does not exist. Sentences are given out on the judgment of a few men, who often have little education and no legal training. Their decisions are effectively beyond the oversight of federal, state and municipal governments.

In some cases, their punishment is far more harsh than the formal legal system requires. For example, Mexico has no death penalty or life sentences, but the Dos Rios villagers buried Teofilo alive.

In other cases, local elders are far more lenient than judges. Town elders in Dos Rios said they would punish a rapist with "a few hours" in the town's small jail cell, plus a restitution payment of perhaps $100 to the victim's family. They recalled one case in which the rapist was forced to pay for a party that the victim's family was planning.

Dos Rios is a Mixtec Indian community, governed by traditional practices. Mexico has long debated how far to go in allowing its 10 million Indians to run their own judicial systems. Critics argue that all Mexicans should be governed by the same legal system. But Dos Rios remains one of many places -- Indian and non-Indian -- set apart from mainstream justice in Mexico.

With each passing decade, roads and other public services creep closer to these self-ruled villages. Ten years ago, the road into Dos Rios was little more than a donkey path used largely by farmers hauling their opium poppies to market. Today, trucks hauling beer and Pepsi lumber down the roads, supplying villages with the syrupy smack of globalization.

But the rule of law cannot be loaded onto a delivery truck, and the protection of police and courts still barely exists.

"We can't get everywhere," said Isidro Basurto Mendoz, the official in charge of police in Metlatonoc, the municipal seat, which is three hours from Dos Rios by car and 10 on foot. "The distances are too great, and we have no communications. The problem is that when we can't get there, people take justice into their own hands."

Basurto said he has 18 police officers and one pickup truck to cover 30,000 people in 156 small communities spread over an area about the size of Montgomery County. Most are reachable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. In the rainy season they are cut off by impassable roads.

As Basurto spoke, word filtered in that two men had been killed the night before in a village a couple of hours' drive into the mountains. A dozen of Basurto's officers grabbed their shotguns and hopped into the back of the police pickup. Despite the display of firepower, Basurto said he and his men would almost certainly not solve the crime.

"I'm going to get the information, give the bodies to the families for burial, then I'll come back to do the paperwork," he said.

Basurto said it was unlikely that any suspect would ever be convicted. He said his officers are not trained to gather or handle evidence. Witnesses would need to drive for hours or walk for days to give testimony before a judge. He said people have no money to make such a trip, and would fear retaliation.

Two suspects were recently arrested and charged with murder in a nearby village. Basurto turned them over to regional prosecutors, but they were free within three months. He suspects they paid a bribe to get the charges dropped. Now, he said, they are back in their village, threatening to kill those who identified them.

Basurto said that case is unusual because the suspects were charged and turned over to prosecutors. "Usually by the time we find out about a case, it's already been resolved," he said. "Or we don't find out about it at all."

Growing Up Together

Teofilo and Vicente grew up the way all children do here: poorly nourished, without shoes and with little knowledge of the outside world. They played among the chickens and mango trees, and they were lucky to survive. Elders here say that until a state government doctor began making regular visits a few years ago, many children died for lack of medicine and basic care.

The two boys were reared in one of the village's small red-brown cubes of mud. Together, working the fields of corn and beans, they grew into men. There are no known photos of either cousin in this village, where cameras are rare. Their families describe them as typical in every way, two sturdy farmhands.

They both married and had the same kind of families: three sons and a daughter. Then things went sour for Teofilo. His wife died in childbirth. He remarried, but his second wife died of a fever about five years ago. He was raising his children alone.

Vicente was building his own house, next to a shady grove of banana trees where he was raised. His uncle lived there, too. It was in his house that Vicente and Teofilo started drinking one afternoon in March 1999. They drank all night. Some here say that Vicente began making jokes about Teofilo's two dead wives. All that is known for sure is that sometime after midnight, Teofilo pulled out a small knife and stabbed Vicente twice in the chest.

By 8 a.m. Teofilo had been brought in and the two men lay side by side on the dirt floor of Vicente's house, with the six elders standing over them, discussing their fate. Vicente's brother, who declined to give his name in an effort to avoid drawing more attention to the case, said the elders made the decision to bury Teofilo alive.

The town elders also wish to avoid attention. Asked about the case one recent morning, Juan Gonzalez Ruiz, the comisario, or head of the local government, switched out of Spanish and consulted with the five other elders, all men in their forties and fifties sitting outside the village hall. They debated for 20 minutes in their Indian language. According to a local schoolteacher who speaks both languages, Gonzalez wanted to tell the truth but the elders instructed him to lie. They said they did not want any more trouble.

Following their orders, Gonzalez told a reporter that Vicente had died in an accident and that Teofilo had run away. The elders nodded in agreement.

The comisario is elected by village residents, and the elders are former comisarios. They said their main goal was to find negotiated solutions to crimes and disputes. They have 10 unpaid "community police" officers, whose duties include helping to keep the peace at festivals and tracking down stolen animals.

Justice varies greatly by community. In some villages, stealing an animal has led to hanging. But here, Gonzalez said, the penalty for stealing a cow is a few hours in jail. He said he or the elders go to the cell and ask the thief why he stole. They try to impress on him that stealing is bad.

Education is sorely lacking. Sixty-seven children study in the village school, which goes to the sixth grade. Only a few children finish all six years. If they wanted to continue their schooling, they would have to drive three hours to Metlatonoc. No one can remember anyone ever doing that.

The people are accustomed to accepting the punishments meted out by the elders. But Teofilo's case shocked many residents. Guadalupe Martinez Castillo, who said she is about 40, said she still cannot believe what her town did.

"It frightens me because I think the same could happen to me, my children, my family," she said. "Everyone lives in fear because they didn't do that to an animal, they killed a person."

Cano, Teofilo's mother, said she lives with fear and regret. From her home, she can just about see the village's hilltop cemetery, where the two cousins are buried in a grave marked by a single anonymous slab of wood jammed into the rocky ground.

Sitting in the red dirt at her house, Cano said she wished she had filed some kind of complaint about her son's death. But she is afraid to challenge the men who run Dos Rios.

"I don't have the courage to confront them," she said. "If I were a man, it might be different. But people here don't know who to go to for justice."

Francisco Estrada Rojas, who teaches at the elementary school, said the elders ordered Teofilo to be buried alive to "teach a big lesson."

He said there had been several murders in Dos Rios in the years leading up to Teofilo's execution. He said that, in the absence of police, disputes over land, family matters, a few cattle or other minor issues often ended in bloodshed. He said few of those killers were caught, and when they were, they almost always seemed to be able to bribe police or prosecutors to let them off.

"That's why people take justice into their own hands," Estrada said. "This happened because the community had been beaten down by so many crimes without punishment."

Estrada said that when the police arrived a day after the murders, they wanted to dig up the men to see for themselves what had happened, and to put the two men in separate graves. But local officials told the police that no one in town would help them. Estrada said they told the police: "You'll have to pay for the food and drink of the laborers, and no one wants to do that kind of work."

Several people in the community said the police stayed only a few minutes longer. There is a widespread belief here that the officers were paid a bribe to forget about the whole thing.

"They didn't arrest anybody," Estrada said. "Because they would have had to arrest the whole community."

--Researcher Laurie Freeman contributed to this report.