A winding, one-hour journey into the mountains that surround Guatemala City leads, down dirt roads, to the quiet town of San José Nacahuil. A church, school, and meeting hall dot the main square here; children play outside while residents tend to small bodegas. About 7,500 people live in this Maya Kaqchikel community – the only indigenous area in the municipality of San Pedro Ayampuc.

On September 7 of 2013, Nacahuil was shattered by a tragic event. At around 11pm that night, unidentified men stalked through the town, gunning people down. When the gunmen finally fled in their stolen vehicle, 11 people were dead and at least another dozen were injured. At least eight of those killed were shot in a cantina located on the town’s main street.

As residents commemorate the massacre one year later, justice has been slow coming. A handful of people sit behind bars, awaiting the conclusion to their trial, but evidence linking the massacre to the police has not been investigated.

A Struggle for Security

In August of this year, GHRC had the opportunity to visit Nacahuil with our annual “Women in Resistance” delegation to Guatemala. Residents greeted us with a formal presentation about their community, and — through a multitude of testimonies — shared their struggle to define and maintain security in their community.

(Click through the slideshow below):

About 13 years ago, a police substation was established in Nacahuil. But according to residents, the police were inefficient. Worse, they were corrupt. Eventually, community members burned down the police station to protest what they saw as exploitation and abuse, rather than protection, of the community.

“As everyone knows here, our people work in agriculture — corn, beans, firewood,” explained a young student from the area. “But, on the way back to our homes, police officials would rob us of the goods we had collected. That’s what pushed us to take such drastic measures to force them out.”

A document written by members of San Jose Nacahuil and other grassroots groups explained the difficult relationship with the police by characterizing Nacahuil as an area that has “its own community authorities,” and where “police presence is unnecessary.” Until last year, the town remained free of a police presence, and local officials say they saw a reduction in crime during that time.

The 7th of September

Recollections of the massacre reveal a community still struggling to come to terms with the events of that day, as well as their lingering effects.

At the assembly, several young people shared memories of and reactions to the attack:

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According to the spokesman for the local firefighters, Sergio Vásquez, over 50 firefighters and 20 ambulances were deployed to the scene on the night of the massacre. Residents say, though, that public prosecutors didn’t arrive until the next morning. Interior Minister López Bonilla immediately blamed the attack on gangs and placed the community under the control of a contingent of police and soldiers.

But relatives of those killed in the attack pointed to another theory — that members of the police themselves had perpetrated the crime.

According to the Associated Press, “Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said the National Civil Police sent a patrol car to the town Saturday night after receiving an anonymous call reporting fears of an imminent attack.” After officers determined that there was no disturbance, the patrol left.

Interestingly, the route that the killers took is the same one the police patrol had followed earlier. Where, community members mused in their communiqué about the shootings, were the police when the crime was committed? Did they just create the conditions for the massacre and verify that there were no armed people in the area?

The owner of a local bar was among the dead, and suspicions of police involvement were heightened by a relative’s report that police had demanded a bribe from the bar owner, which he refused to pay.

In early October of 2013, eight alleged gang members were arrested in connection to the shooting. Yet, questions about how the gang members managed to perpetrate the attack and then escape, and where the police were at this crucial moment, remain to be answered.

Residents also read the response by the government — especially a call by Lopez Bonilla for the installation of a military detachment in the community — as an attempt to increase control in the area because of residents’ involvement in protesting large extractive projects on or near their lands.

Like many indigenous communities in Guatemala, the people of Nacahuil have been affected by attempts to impose development projects without their consent. In response, many community members have participated in non-violent resistance movements, such as the ongoing roadblock at ‘La Puya’ to prevent the construction of the El Tambor gold mine. Anti-mining activists worried that the massacre would be used by the government as a pretext to militarize the region, or an excuse to crack down on protesters.

Strikingly, residents’ distrust of the military is so great that – even though many believed the police to be directly involved in the massacre – they still preferred the installation of a police station in their community over the presence of the military.

A New Security Model

In the months following the massacre, as community members grieved and recovered, they also seriously reflected on the state of security in Nacahuil.

“We looked around … and we saw that it wasn’t good,” stated one community member at the assembly, referring to the town’s security model.

Although residents were frustrated and angry over the lack of investigation into the shooting, they were equally concerned with the imminent threats of police and military presence in the region. With limited resources, community leaders chose to prioritize advocating for a security model that would correspond with community values, as well as respect their indigenous social, religious, and political structures.

During our visit, Vicente Soyos Monroy — the indigenous mayor and community authority representing Nacahuil — proudly presented GHRC with a copy of a newly brokered agreement for the re-installation of a police substation in the center of town. The accord, which represents months of negotiations, is signed both by representatives of the community and the police; GHRC and other groups are included as international observers of the contract.

Grounded in existing law, the agreement highlights the role of the PNC’s Division of Intervention in Community Relations in implementing community violence prevention strategies, as well as the Multiculturalism Department’s role in respecting cultural practices and reporting acts of discrimination.

Furthermore, the contract outlines specific, clear and binding agreements between the police and the community of San José Nacahuil, including:

  • The number of police officers assigned to Nacahuil will be in proportion to the population
  • Officials assigned to Nacahuil will speak the Kaqchikel language, and will include female officers
  • The security plan will correspond with the cultural and social characteristics of the community, and promote community participation in its citizen security scheme.

Community-led security models have proven successful in other areas. A recent InsightCrime article calls Sibinal, territory largely inhabited by the indigenous Maya Mam people, one of the most peaceful regions of Guatemala. The police have had no presence in Sibinal for the last three years, and the last violent death dates back to 2011, when the police were still present.

Although community-policing structures are not perfect security mechanisms, it is striking that the use of these models corresponds — in several cases — with lower levels of violent crime. As the US continues an increasingly militarized approach to the “drug war,” and as it searches for solutions to the surge in migration from Central America, we may look to Nacahuil as a new way of approaching security in the region.