In 2011, Cherán a town of nearly 20,000 people in Michoacán, Mexico, locals threw out not just the loggers that had been threatening their forests, but the politicians and police too. After years of corruption and violence, they said loudly ‘Enough is Enough’, following it through with effective action. What can we learn from their example?
The women met in secret to make their plans. They were sickened by the killings, rape and kidnaps that had become routine and angered by the masked men who roamed their town demanding extortion payments from small businesses. And for more than three years they had watched, indignant, as lorry after lorry trundled past their homes piled high with freshly cut logs devastating 70% of the surrounding oak forests.
“Their cars and lorries would drive down all the main roads of the community. They would mock us as they passed and not just that, they would go into stores and ransack them and then leave. Nobody could say anything. Women, men, all of us, we felt powerless to yell or stop them. Our situation was critical, it was desperate, but nothing tangible could be done because we couldn’t agree, each of us belonged to a different political party.” (from this UN report)
By 2011, the loggers were getting close to one of Cherán’s water springs. A group of women took it upon them selves to act, and went into the forest to try and reason with the armed men. They were verbally abused and chased away at gunpoint. So their plan evolved. Now they knew it was too dangerous to confront the loggers in the forest at the spring, they determined to stop the lorries in town where they would have the support of their neighbours.
Early on Friday 15 April 2011, Cherán’s levantamiento, or uprising, began. On the road coming down from the forest outside Margarita’s home, the women blockaded the loggers’ pick-ups and took some of them hostage. The loggers tried to run the women over and fired at people. As the church bells of El Calvario rang out and fireworks exploded in the dawn sky alerting the community to danger, the people of Cherán came running to help.
“When we set out it was dawn and still dark, around 6:30 in the morning. The church bells were ringing calling people to mass […] I never really thought this would go far […] We were just five women from here, from this neighbourhood, a bunch of older women, there were no men, maybe a few men but mostly women […] We chased after the cars throwing stones” (from this documentary)
They set the lorries on fire once they had pulled the loggers out, and began detaining the loggers themselves (later to be handed over to federal police). It was tense – hotheads had to be persuaded by the women not to string up the hostages from an ancient tree outside the church.
It was at this point that the community recognised the complicity of the local police when it was police officers who guided organised crime thugs to the place where the loggers were being held, in an attempt to violently release them.
If the Purépechans thought this was the end of the matter, they were mistaken. On April 27, 2011, in what was undoubtedly an act of revenge, illegal loggers shot and killed two Cherán residents who were patrolling the town’s perimeter.
The community erected over 200 fogatas or bonfire barricades throughout town in order to prevent violence against community members. Within days the community decided that it no longer trusted any politicians from any political party or any of the local and state police, and the community evicted the town’s mayor, and the corrupt police force simply exiled themselves in fear from the community, warranting no need to run them out of town. Armed townspeople — from middle-age men to teenage girls — guard the barricades blocking all entrances into town. Their weapons are AR15 assault rifles, seized from the police when they expelled them. The local government office had its gates pushed down using a requisitioned timber lorry. More than ten burnt-out lorries were towed and placed along the main streets as a reminder of the cause and to warn illegal loggers and members of organised crime groups. No one was allowed to leave or enter Cherán without identifying themselves at the main barricade.
Townspeople began to organise for self-determination and self-defence and chose to return to their traditional Purépecha forms of self-governance.
Governance and decision-making
“We are part of the earth, the fight is for life. Men and women of our community, and the groups who offer us support, give us another page in the story of our community’s fight. We confirm our fight in defence of Mother Nature and life; to take oath as the second council is to confirm our task of recovering our world view that comes as an answer to the problems of our nation and the whole world.” – Pedro Chávez, new elder to council in 2015, reading the group’s declaration.
In Cherán today, there are no political campaigns, no ballots, no political parties, and no elections. They were inspired to push for autonomy by the example of the Zapatistas.
A general council of community elders was elected and commissions were formed in order to carry out the community’s logistical, social, economic, and political needs. Community members simply say that they referred to their indigenous Purépecha history and elders, in order to return to the way the community was organised before political parties, police, and organised crime existed.
The K’eris Council of 12 elders took the place of the mayor. Its members are chosen by their neighbours in a revolving manner. Council members know that what power they have is theirs only for a short period, and that their appointment can be revoked at any time.
“Everyone in the community participates instead of just having a few people making all the calls. From the campfire and street corners, entire families contribute their feelings on how things should be done. Those ideas reach the communal assemblies where general agreements are made. Each commission makes decisions to see what will be done in their own areas, but the overall general decisions are made in the communal assemblies. The communal assembly is the highest authority.” – Juan Jose Estrada Serafin, newspaper correspondent
“The election process involves everyone meeting in the square and standing behind their selected representative,” says a photographer. “It is extremely transparent. It is not without its flaws and potential for corruption, but compared to the typical election campaigns, it is a lot more honest.”
In November 2011 in a court appeal, Cherán acquired a degree of autonomy from the Mexican government; the town still receives federal and state money, and its people must pay taxes, but they are allowed to govern themselves under a legal framework called ‘uses and customs’ that has been granted to some indigenous communities. Cherán is the first community to be granted this right.
In 2014 a group petitioned the town authorities to restore political parties, to be able to take part in national elections. After discussions around bonfires and throughout the four communities, the people decided to maintain their autonomous political status, in keeping with their history and traditions.
Autonomy and self-reliance
Cherán dispenses its own justice for minor offences. Many of those are alcohol-related; personal use of locally-grown weed but not outside dealers. Penalties include fines and community work – such as litter-picking. Serious law-breaking is referred to the attorney general. Since they took over, there have been no murders, kidnaps or disappearances, which for this area of Mexico is remarkable. There are checkpoints at all the entrances to town, checking for weapons, drugs and asking people their business if they’re not local. Originally the people who maintained the checkpoints and barricades were a mix of people, including many women and whole families; the volunteer community guard now has become armed and mostly male.
Historically, Cherán had traditionally been ‘policed’ or defended by members from the community. In a voluntary rotation members from each of the four barrios or neighbourhoods would patrol the community for self-defence in what is known as the ‘community ronda.’ After the uprising the general council made a call out for volunteers to participate in the community ronda, or community guard. Community members maintain that police are imposed by the government, but the ronda is a traditional way in which community members protect themselves and their community. Today the ronda is separated into two parts. The ronda comunitaria which is responsible for patrolling and protecting the community from within its borders and the guardabosques or forest defenders, which patrol the outskirts of town and deep into the forests in order to protect community members living in those more rural areas and in order to protect the forest itself.
Land in Cherán is mostly held in common – families manage it but they don’t own it. With the criminals gone, rules are strictly enforced – anyone who wants to fell a tree must secure permission from the authorities. Some 3,500 hectares have so far been re-planted in the five years since the uprising, with 1.5 million pine saplings grown every year in greenhouses they’ve set up for that purpose. This is one example too where employment has been created, lessening migration to the cities.
The town is about to use the crater of a dormant volcano as the largest rainwater collection system in Latin America, channeled to a purification plant. Cherán’s autonomy is also expressed and strengthened through its use of alternative media
Other communities have defended their forest against loggers; the difference in Cherán was that organised crime was involved. The criminal gangs were clearing land to sell wood and then have locals grow marijuana for them or set up drug laboratories.
When the residents of Cherán asked their municipal, state and federal authorities for help, they did nothing.
The first community members who began to defend their forest were simply and quickly assassinated. From 2008-2011 the situation only became worse. Criminals charged protection to run even a small business in the community of Cherán.
“They tell us we won’t last long, that they’re going to take our lands and that they’re even going to take our cattle, that they know us, that they have us on a list, that they’re going to bag us, that they’ll never find our bodies,” says the leader of the volunteer police. He’s one of the many rural inhabitants evicted from the forest and from his small farm plot. His 12 hectares (about 30 acres) were left in areas controlled by the timber cutters. He’s been prohibited from going in there.
Cherán is surrounded by communities where this has already taken place. Huitzaco, for example, is a town inhabited by dozens of ‘owners’ of working mines who are poor because they are simply fronts for the real owners. In San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro, the businesses there are being harassed into paying for ‘protection.’ The avocado growers in Uruapan, producers of the world famous ‘green gold’, transferred their orchards to armed men who force them into partnerships and make them sell their crops to certain packing plants.
The timber cutters of the town of Tanaco pay for lorries loaded with illegal lumber. The forests of El Cerecito are used to camouflage drug laboratories. In Paracho it is said they even control the water.
This is the face of the Mexican “ecomafia.” [It is] the diversification of the businesses of cartels such as Los Zetas, Los Caballeros Templarios and La Familia Michoacana who take over territories and their natural resources.
“Here, the climate, which is cold, is not good for growing avocados; that’s not what they want the land for. But our lands are good for growing beautiful marijuana plants, like there are in nearby communities, or to install drug laboratories in remote areas like those found in El Cerecito. Sand and gravel quarries are tempting. Our forests will produce lumber for them. What they want is more money. They even wanted to charge the community for the water we were drawing from the deep well,” explains a woman communal member, who asks that her name not be used.
The present and the future
In late July 2012, an army base was set up near Cherán after two residents were killed when they ventured into the forests. It’s not plain-sailing, and there have been assassinations and disappearances from outside the town.
Some in Cherán say that they have begun to feel captive and desperate, confined to their town but still dependent on the forests, from which they take wood and wild mushrooms, a community staple. The forests also represents something more intangible but no less important to them — a source of wisdom and an integral part of the Cheránean identity.
Cherán is not the first community in Mexico to return to their traditional means of community self‑defence, nor is it the first place in the state of Michoacan, nor in the indigenous Purepecha region. Other communities have engaged in similar practices of self governance and self-defence, and little by little more and more communities are seeing traditional self governance and self-defence as a viable alternative to corrupt politics and submission to organised crime.
Recently council members from Nurio, Michoacan, a larger community and long time practitioner of self-governance and self-defence, suggested that the entire Purepecha region should begin to organise a regional ronda that could potentially coordinate self-defence patrols on a regional level for the indigenous Purepecha people living throughout the state of Michoacan.
“They thought they could bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” -Mexican Proverb
“Brothers and sisters, we have a great task at hand, to start to raise consciousness about what it really means to be a comunero or community member. Comunero is a very deep word. It is not a slogan or tag. It is a way of life and a cell to build a new society, a new humanity. This is how I see it, a grand responsibility. The result of consciousness raising is realising that we are universal beings and part of the universe, we are not owners of the universe, this according to the indigenous philosophy of our wise ancestors. We are not owners of the land. We are part of the land.” – Jose Merced, Cherán shaman and storyteller
“Now this is the work that we all have to do, all of the communities, not just the community of Cherán, all the communities of the world, to reverse the logic of neoliberalism, which makes us believe that processing raw materials is the only way to fulfil the necessities of our people, of our communities and ourselves as individuals.” – David Romero, Cherán lawyer
Cherán does not believe that anybody will ever be able to bring them justice for their dead, disappeared, and displaced as a result of the conflict, nor do they expect anyone in power to understand the justice they seek for the forest. Today Cherán knows that justice is something that they will have to take care of obtaining on their own from now on. When it comes to safety, the world is able to see what it looks like for a community to take responsibility for its own safety through traditional indigenous forms of self-governance and self-defence.
Edited together from various accounts including:
Borderland Beat, the NY Times, and El Enemigo Comun.
BBC radio programme
Documentaries: in Spanish, and two others with English subtitles here and here.