May 1 6:00 PM

How a Mexican town toppled a cartel and established its independence

Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

Three years ago the people of the town of Cherán were terrorized by members of La Familia cartel, who brazenly plundered their sacred forest in broad daylight, likely selling the wood to transnational corporations. The plight facing the community of 16,000 people, situated in the western portion of the Mexican state of Michoacán, was just part of a trend taking place throughout the region.

Other cartels, such as the Knights Templar, were extorting money from other industries, forcing farmers growing avocados, limes, and other produce to pay ad hoc taxes on their crops. Those who didn’t pay and their families were subject to kidnapping, murder, and other violent tactics. To make matters worse, in many towns in Michoacán, local governments and police forces were either aiding and abetting the criminal elements or were powerless to stop them. The antagonism from the cartels has led to several towns forming so-called self-defense forces, picking up arms to barricade and police their communities, protect their valuable crops, and hunt their intimidators, as well as Knights Templar’s informants.

Cherán was the first town to do so back in 2011. A community of indigenous people belonging to the Purépecha culture, its traditions included debating issues of great importance to the townspeople via discussions over some 200 bonfires throughout the town, where community members would huddle. After watching 70 percent of their forest, or Pakua Karakua, being dismantled tree trunk by tree trunk, the talk around the bonfires finally turned to action. The community had had enough.

On April 15, 2011, a group of women attempted to thwart the looters passing through the town on their way to the forest. Other townspeople constructed a barricade blocking the entrance to Cherán. Once it became clear that the local police were helping the illegal loggers, the community turned on the municipal government, as well. Within a few months they had formally become an independent community that largely governed and policed itself. (For instance, it set up checkpoints, like the one above, to monitor who was coming into and going out of the town.)

Many of the self-defense movements that have sprung up over the past year or so in other parts of Michoacán have taken their inspiration from Cherán. There are several meaningful differences, however, in how Cherán combated La Familia versus what’s happening elsewhere in the state. These differences are what has made the comunitarios, as Cherán’s security force is known, successful and respected. The Purépecha community rose up to protect its land and its people. It’s not always clear if some of the other militias have the same purity of purpose. Also, because Cherán citizenry is made up of indigenous people, they have rights that allow them a level of autonomy from the Mexican government that other groups barricading the entries to their towns don’t enjoy.  

Profesor Trinidad Ramírez, an elementary school teacher in Cheran, is one of 12 community members elected to a council that governs the town. Fault Lines spoke to Ramirez ahead of the third anniversary of Cherán’s independence to discuss what led the community to liberate itself not only from the cartel’s grips, but also those of an ineffective local government. 

Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

Fault Lines: What was happening in Cherán prior to the community organizing itself to be an independent town? What caused that to happen?

Ramirez: It was a product of all the criminal pillaging of our forests. Cherán has been a community that always has lived together with its environment, with our nature. And well, our forests had always been coveted, well, by everyone, no?

In 2008, a new municipal president started his management. And it's known there was a lot of money behind the purchase of votes for him. Today we know how much it cost and who was going to pay. And then the looting of our forests began. Places that had never been pillaged before, had never been exploited, started being exploited.

We started to see strange people chopping down the forest, armed people. We are fighters, but we do not use arms. So fear started growing in the population. The ones that dared to defend our forest are, unfortunately, no longer with us. They were assassinated in a cowardly manner. And I say cowardly because they were murdered with so much brutality.

There's a very sad story where a grandfather was going with his grandsons to defend the forest, where all their life, since their ancestors’ time, they had lived and had learned to extract what they needed to be able to live, no? And when the grandfather dared to go to defend that part of his forest, he was taken by the malandros, as we call them. And he was murdered in front of his grandsons.

So we leaned on the priest. We managed to have a meeting with the civil authority and the communal authority. They were both antagonistic authorities that were always fighting. And well, that's how it came about. Trying to find solutions.  


Were there specific events that led to April 15, 2011?

Through the streets, around 200, 300 trucks circulated, loaded with wood. There are thousands of cubic meters that they took away. And they got to one of the most important places, the place that's supplying us with the most water. It is half of the population’s water supply. In Purepecha, it is called Charati. Those places, for us, are untouchable.

So they knocked some pine trees from there down. And that worried our people more and increased the anger. And that's how we got to April 15th. On April 15th, a group of ladies organizes itself.

It's not pleasant at all to see that, in front of their noses, trucks loaded with wood pass. And you know it is from your own forest, which you took care of all your life, like my father for instance. And from night to morning, it was knocked down. All these things augmented the anger. The women made a flier that they distributed and left in the houses.

The original plan to stop the logging was set for Sunday, April 17. But because the loggers had already reached our water deposits, they didn't wait until Sunday. Rather, they decided it would be on Friday.


What did the ladies do?

Around 5 in the morning, the church bell began to chime. It wasn't a call to mass. It's different than the chime that we are used to. They're like passwords that we have in case of danger or in need of a meeting. We have had that since forever. And, well, we already knew what it was about.

The ladies tried to stop the first cars. Unfortunately, the cars, instead of stopping, went straight to them. That's what provoked the rage. We don't know where the muchachos emerged from—if they were already aware of the plan or had organized with the same goal.

Not only did they stop the cars, but they were burning them. In other words, everything went loose. All the contained rage, all the contained impotence was unleashed there. And they detained five of the talamontes. Others were able to escape.

Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America

Were there any repercussions from burning the cars?

Around 9 or 10 in the morning, hitmen tried to rescue the talamontes. People heavily armed came in with some heavily armed pickup trucks. The sad thing is that they were guided by our very own municipal police. How is it that the people that are supposed to protect us are the ones guiding criminals, no? And well, there was an unequal confrontation.

Did many people die?

The hitmen were heavily armed, and our people had only sticks and stones and fireworks. It was the fireworks that saved us. Or saved anyone from dying that day. They only injured a 28-year-old young man. He sustained a head injury and, well, he's still convalescing.

And from there you made drastic decisions as community, like replacing the president and beginning the path to self-government. How did that take place?

That day, a group of people went to where the municipal president was working and practically chased off everyone that was there. Because the police were the ones guiding the hitmen, well that gave an indication that all the officials were the same. That day, well, it was a mess because nothing was planned. Everything was spontaneous. What had been repressed before in that moment overflowed.

By 11 am, we started putting stones on the entrances to the town. We started forming groups to make sure that the loggers were not getting in. As evening was approaching, there was no organization. A bunch our people were saying, "What to do?" We knew we had to organize something because night was coming, and it was going to be more dangerous.

We remembered how we organized by neighborhoods. We are four neighborhoods here. So we asked, “How are we going to organize ourselves?” And we said, “By neighborhood.” We made a meeting in that same place, the four neighborhoods. We started like that. Very disorganized, right? But we steered it. There, we formed the commissions. And our town is wise. It knows how to elect. They appointed the most suitable people.

A negotiating commission was formed, a coordination of the neighborhoods, and a general commission. The general commission was appointed to submit a petition because we needed to identify the problems we wanted to solve.


What did you identify as the problems? And how was this new local government received?

Security, justice, and restoration of our forests.

On April 23rd, we went to Morelia [the capital of Michoacán]. It was the first visit we made to Morelia, where we showed the government that we were capable, the indigenous people, of organizing ourselves. We came in through the four main entrances to Morelia. Each neighborhood through one. And we came inside step-by-step, as slowly as we could. In other words, we paralyzed the capital.

We were prepared with fliers, and we were making the purpose of our movement known. Around 2pm in the afternoon, when we got to the main plaza, people from Morelia were already waiting for us with food, with water. We saw that our movement had a reason to exist.

The security of the people of Cherán and obviously the protection of your forests are tenants of the new government. Can you talk more about the third piece, the element of justice?

There’s a fundamental aspect where we haven’t moved forward. That is justice. There hasn't been a single person detained or anything for our 18 dead and five missing. We have no leads. For us, one is more than enough. Eighteen is too many.

We don't have a single prisoner, detainee, or some investigation that was initiated. So we ask for justice for those who died and the missing, justice for the women that were left helpless, justice for the orphans, justice for our forests. Justice. A true justice.


With everything that has happened in Michoacán, do you believe that Cherán is the role model for the self-defense forces to follow?

We defend what's our home. We, this town, everyone from Cherán, when we are outside of Cherán and we run into each other, we say, “You haven't been home.” We don't say, “You haven't been to town.” All of our town, our territory, we consider it as our home. And that's what we defend. We defend an entire culture—our identity, our culture, our traditions, our way of life.

In our history, we have the communal rounds. They existed from long ago. They were how we kept order in the community and also in our forests. That emerged from the bonfires. Ask our people what it is that they defend, and they're going to give you the answer that they're willing to give their lives for their town.

We don't know exactly what is it that others defend. If you defend your town, we praise you and respect you. But if you defend other interests, then we have to question what you defend. Those other regions are very rich, no? If they're very productive zones—lemon farms, lemon producers, big mines—sometimes we think that the self-defense forces emerge precisely to defend those interests. We go back to saying, “If they emerge because of the true necessity to defend the community, well, we think it's right. But, if they emerge from different interests, we must be careful.”

A member of Cherán's community police at a checkpoint set up to monitor who is coming into and going out of town. (Singeli Agnew for Al Jazeera America)

Tune in to the latest episode of Fault Lines, “Mexico's Vigilante State” premiering Saturday, May 3, at 7p ET. It will air again on Al Jazeera America Saturday, May 3, at 10p ET and Sunday, May 4, at 2a ET.   


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