SANTA CRUZ DEL QUICHÉ, Guatemala — Juan Zapeta has a special skill. In just 15 minutes, he can determine if someone is lying, a crucial talent for the 5-foot-tall Mayan man, who resolves conflicts quickly as the highest authority in one of Guatemala’s alternative justice systems. Zapeta is the indigenous mayor of Santa Cruz, a role that is elected and operates separately from the official mayor's office.
In dozens of Mayan communities in Guatemala, robberies, debts, and even homicides are resolved in just hours by elected indigenous leaders. When a new case arises in Santa Cruz, Zapeta receives a call on his red Nokia phone, and heads to the scene of the crime. There, he listens to the victim and the perpetrator, then tries to elicit an honest confession from the accused. Zapeta draws on the principles of the Pixab', the Mayan oral tradition, to dole out a sentence that brings healing and satisfaction to victims.
The 60-year-old handles cases nearly every day, a decline from several years ago when he resolved up to five per day. Now, he hears about 30 a month.
“In the [state justice] system, telling the truth represents your sentence,” Zapeta told me in Spanish on a sunny Friday morning in Santa Cruz, a city in the highlands of Guatemala’s indigenous department of Quiché. “For us, telling the truth is your liberation.”
Zapeta practices community justice, an emerging approach to conflict resolution that emphasizes community inclusion to encourage meaningful accountability. These systems use a person’s sense of belonging to exercise informal social control, an approach that’s often more effective and less costly than criminal justice systems, according to Skidmore College sociology professor David Karp, whose research focuses on community justice.
Byron Paredes Tiul, Guatemala’s defender of indigenous rights, a position in the country’s office for human rights, told me that each indigenous justice system in Guatemala varies slightly from one community to the next. But all the systems share common values, including honor of your word, respect for authorities, and honesty. They follow an 18-step procedure that begins when someone contacts indigenous authorities; then comes an elaborate process of analysis, deliberation, sentencing, and punishment.
In Guatemala, indigenous rights groups are now demanding their judicial systems be recognized in a new constitution; this would mean full acknowledgment of the rites and traditions of Mayan people, who make up more than half of the country’s population.
Such alternative justice systems have existed for centuries in Guatemala’s indigenous communities. These systems have evolved over time, and their present-day incarnation is shaped by the legacy of Guatemala’s civil war, a 36-year conflict during which Mayan communities endured brutal state-sponsored massacres. More than 80% of the 200,000 people killed during the conflict were Mayan.
By the time the war ended in 1996, the indigenous authority in Santa Cruz had disintegrated. All the leaders were either murdered or driven into hiding.
“The war weakened our [justice system],” Amilcar Pop, founder of the Association of Mayan Lawyers and Notaries, told me. “The impunity that the war generated in Guatemala’s judicial system also created an isolation and cultural resistance in indigenous communities.”
After the civil war, a wave of frustration over impunity flooded Santa Cruz, Zapeta said. Former Guatemalan president and dictator Efraín Rios Montt walked free in Guatemala until he was found guilty of genocide in 2013, a conviction that was later overturned. Mott’s retrial now continues behind closed doors. This past March, Guatemala sentenced two military officials to 360 years in prison for sex crimes against Mayan women in the country’s landmark Sepur Zarco trial. Eight more military officers await trial for crimes against humanity after the excavation of the largest mass grave in Latin America. But for nearly two decades, these crimes went unpunished and unrecognized.
As a result, indigenous communities would express outrage over petty crimes in Santa Cruz, according to Zapeta. One day, community members would see police arrest a young man for a robbery; but the next, they’d see him roaming the streets again. Scarred by war crimes, the community’s resentment over this lack of justice began to intensify.
People started taking matters into their own hands, leading to mob justice and causing chaos in Santa Cruz. Eventually, the role of indigenous mayor returned as a viable alternative to law enforcement and a state judicial system, both of which still operate in Santa Cruz.
Now, victims of a crime in Santa Cruz can either choose to report it to the police, or call Zapeta—but it must be one or the other. Under Guatemalan law, a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime.
“With Juan Zapeta, the problem is resolved in 24 hours,” said Gilberto Lopez, 57, who recently called Zapeta when a neighbor destroyed his family’s crops. “The other authorities sometimes don’t resolve a problem for four or five months. If you are hungry, you are going to eat today, not tomorrow.”
Zapeta has handled various cases, from drunk driving accidents to paternity tests and homicides. In every case, he hears both sides of the story, and claims to almost always elicit a confession from the perpetrator by questioning them directly. With just a little cajoling, Zapeta said, they often admit to wrongdoing out of respect for him, but the efficiency of his tactics is anecdotal and not proven through due process. Finally, Zapeta doles out a punishment made up of three components: reparations for the victim, repentance, and public shame.
In the case of a robbery, for instance, a thief may have to repay the store owner an amount totaling the goods he stole, clean the store for a week, and then stand in the Sunday market with a sign announcing his guilt. In a more serious case like rape, however, the perpetrator may have to pay a lifelong stipend to the victim, deliver a sincere apologize, and receive a beating called the xik’a’y, a controversial practice many other indigenous leaders in Guatemala have stopped using, according to lawyer Pop. Zapeta and other indigenous authorities in Guatemala also routinely exile perpetrators of violent crimes, such as rape or homicide.
For perpetrators who are willing to accept responsibility for their actions, the result can be life-changing. That was the case for Pedro Pablo Urízar López, a 33-year-old jewelry maker and self-proclaimed former delinquent.
The last time Urízar López committed a robbery was two years ago, when the business owner and other eyewitnesses caught him in the act. They surrounded him, so he couldn’t leave, and Zapeta eventually arrived to mediate the conflict. As punishment, Urízar López had to return the money, do community service, and stand in Santa Cruz’s town square to receive nine lashings while others watched.
“The police work with laws, but the Mayan justice system works with the people. The state law system doesn’t correct you; it only judges you,” said Urízar López. “When I received my punishment from Don Juan, something changed in me. I realized that my actions hurt the people of Quiché.”
Zapeta’s harsh, often physically painful and publicly humiliating punishments have earned him many critics. Guatemala’s Public Ministry has received at least 10 formal complaints about Zapeta since 2013, mostly for his use of the xik’a’y. Although Zapeta says he can spot a liar in 15 minutes, his methods don’t have all the checks and balances of a state system, and so can lead to unfair punishments.
“The limit [of community justice systems] is not on the severity of the offense. The limit is on the willingness of the offender to accept responsibility,” said Skidmore professor Karp. When a defendant claims his innocence, due process is key, and state judicial systems typically have stronger protocols in place for such cases, he added.
Recipients of the xik’a’y are not Zapeta’s only critics. Lucas Argueta Hernandez, commissioner for the Strengthening of Mayan Quiché Identity, a role in the mayor’s office of Santa Cruz, disputes the Mayan origins of Zapeta’s system of justice and his interpretation of the Popol Vuh, the principal Mayan text.
Meanwhile, Sergio Morales Mazariegos, chief inspector of Santa Cruz’s police department, said Zapeta’s work often bypasses Guatemalan law, and undermines his ability to keep people safe. Morales Mazariegos added that he’d like to collaborate more closely with Zapeta to better serve the community, but also believes his approach isn’t the best way to address crime. Still, both critics recognize the demand for Zapeta to resolve disputes within the community.
“Like any justice system, if it stops being effective, it will no longer exist,” said Pop of the Association of Mayan Lawyers and Notaries.
Guatemala’s indigenous justice system has already won some key battles for recognition, including a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that recognized the autonomy of indigenous authorities. Being recognized in the constitution would cement these systems in the social fabric of Guatemala, according to Pop, an important step for indigenous rights in the Central American nation.
“The two systems exist, and they are autonomous and independent, but at one point they will have to begin to work together,” said Defender of Indigenous Rights, Paredes Tiul. “We think that the state has recently made significant moves in the right direction, so the systems can integrate and increase interaction between the two.”
Next up will be the tricky process of merging two distinct systems, so they can work together harmoniously to serve all Guatemalans, including those of indigenous descent.
For now, Zapeta, wearing a button-down shirt and wide-brim straw hat, continues to take meetings in his unofficial office in Santa Cruz’s town square in Santa Cruz. To his right, he can see the yellow municipal government building. A short walk through the square will take him to Urízar López’s jewelry stand. And just a few blocks further is the police station where Morales Mazariegos works.
“I’m proud of my work in spite of the criticisms we’ve received,” said Zapeta. “Our work is valued by the community of Quiché.”
Anna-Cat Brigida is a freelance journalist who covers politics, immigration, and human rights in Latin America.