The large cross located outside of the Cathedral is the meeting point for a Mayan Village Tour with Alex and Raul
Our travels had brought us to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, and while we were deeply entrenched on the Gringo Trail, we wanted more. We wanted to see what Mexico was really like. What old Mexico was really like. Throughout our travels in Mexico we’d experienced the warmth and friendliness of the Mexican people, but there's a lot more behind the smiles and the friendliness. Mexicans have a deep patriotism and pride for everything that is Mexico and are fiercely protective of their native cultures.
While in San Cristobal de las Casas we heard about a small tour company called Alex y Raul who run small, culturally responsible tours out to two nearby Mayan villages called San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. All we had to do to go out to these villages with them was to meet either Alex or Raul at the wooden cross in front of the cathedral near the central square, called the Zocalo. The tours run from 9.30am until around 2.30pm and cost 175 pesos (around $14, excluding tip). We met Raul at the wooden cross at the specified time and left right at 9.30am. Our first stop was San Juan Chamula, which is about 10kms out of San Cristobal.
A family gathers at a memorial for their loved one at San Juan Chamula Cemetery
As soon as we were dropped off just outside of San Juan Chamula we knew we had left the gringo trail. To our right was a cemetery complete with an abandoned church and a memorial service going on. Our guide, Raul explained that memorial services are usually quite small, but funerals are when the entire village shows up. San Juan Chamula, as with most native villages, is completely self-governed and self-regulated. They also observe traditional customs, but are not averse to modern technology.
In San Juan Chamula there are two forms of leadership. There is the civic leadership, or the council to us, and the spiritual leadership. Disputes are solved and crimes punished through the civic leadership. Civic leaders are elected by the men of the village every three years, and the election takes place at the offices of the civic leadership, not by ballot, but by raising your hand and cheering if you like a certain candidate, and by booing and literally throwing rocks at the balcony of the civic office if you don't!
The crime rate in San Juan Chamula is very low. If a crime is committed in this village, it is dealt with by the villagers. The Mexican government has no say in the justice system here. The jail in San Juan Chamula is right in the centre of town, and is actually just two rooms, one for women upstairs, and one for men downstairs. The men's prison is open to the public and its major purpose is to shame offenders. The average sentence in San Juan Chamula is only one day, but this has been known to go up to three days depending on the crime. Re-offenders have to perform community service for a certain period of time, and if they re-offend again, it results in expulsion from the village.
These may seem like light sentences compared to what we're used to in the western world, but the fact is that crime is almost non-existent in this part of Mexico, and if a serious crime has been committed, offenders have been known to receive the death penalty. Often this sentence is carried out by the neighbors and involves drenching the offender in gasoline and then setting them alight. As I've said, the Mexican government has no say in judicial matters.