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The courage of Cheran: organizing against violence

Mistrust in government systems of rule has led the town of Cherán in Mexico to create its own institutions. The community faces many challenges, not the least of which is the non-violent defence of their people in an area where armed gangs are a constant threat.

Since 15 April, an indigenous community in the west of Mexico has sealed itself off in a stand against criminal gangs, illegal loggers and state corruption. High in the lush mountain range of the Meseta Purepecha, in the Mexican state of Michoácan, is the town of Cherán. Here, surrounded by what was once thick pine-covered forest, the indigenous Purepacha are involved in a non-violent struggle to preserve their way of life. For the last three years the people have watched their town become caught up in Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war on drugs. As an armed gang of illegal loggers, backed by the main local drug cartel, encroached further onto the community’s land, with it came threats, abduction and murder.

Police protect members of the community involved in reforestationThe town’s community police patrol the forest protecting members of
the community involved in reforestation. Photo: Nicolas Tavira.
All Rights Reserved.

All this changed on 15 April when the community of over 16,000, tired of living in fear, began to fight back. People, mainly women, leaving early morning mass attacked three trucks, carrying illegally 

logged wood, as they came down from the mountain. With sheer numbers of people, sticks and stones they detained five loggers and took them to the local parish. Members of the community informed local authorities what had happened. Around two hours later, two pick-up trucks with 14 masked and armed men, escorted by municipal police, attempted to enter the town to free the loggers. One resident was shot and others injured before people rallied and drove the attackers out. On 27 April, in an apparent retaliation, loggers killed two men from Cherán while they were out working in the forest. In response, the community stormed the local police station taking arms and police vehicles. They then set about closing the town, erecting barricades and organising a movement. The closure was a knee-jerk reaction to the violence the community had faced, but in the aftermath people soon came to realise that the town needed to organise itself on a much greater scale.

The birth of a movement

Mario Espinosa is one of around 60 volunteers now involved in running the town. He is sitting in the down-at-heal office of the Commission for Coordination, which oversees the organisation of what has become a movement. He explains that when the town rose up against the illegal loggers people were not organised. “We soon realised there was a need to form a commission to have dialogue with the state government,” he says. Let down by state systems of rule, the community of Cherán based their new way of governing on methods used by their indigenous ancestors. Meetings were held in each of the four neighbourhoods of the town. “Volunteers came forward. A representative was needed from each of the quarters and the people elected them.” The movement currently has five main commissions and there are plans to develop more. “Each one grew out of the movement and from what was deemed necessary,” says Alberto Ramírez, a representative from the Commission of Honour and Justice, which deals with social problems within the town. The events of 15 April may have kick-started the movement, but other factors would drive it.

Unity in the face of division 

Members of Cherán guard their streets against organised crime and illegal loggers.Members of Cherán guard their streets against organised crime
and illegal loggers. Photo: Nicolas Tavira. All Rights Reserved.

Since 15 April, Cherán, on the face of it at least, appears united in its struggle. But it was not always this way. Father Antonio Mora, one of the town’s priests, moved to the community three years ago and found the town deeply divided along political lines. He explains that as political divisions worsened, organised crime took advantage of the split to drive a further wedge between members of the community. While the town fought amongst itself, illegal logging in the area increased as some people within Cherán started aligning themselves with criminal groups. Father Mora explains that the town is now living a type of “forced unity” where even though there is some disagreement, the general consensus is that it is the best chance the movement has of surviving. 

While barricades protect the town, they cannot keep information from getting out. People in Cherán state that other members of the community are informing members of organised crime on the structure of the movement and its plans. In this environment, how is it possible to keep a movement going? Ramírez, like Father Mora, is convinced that, “If the town is able to stay organised and united it will progress,” he states. But, “We need to make people aware that we are in a process of change, a society different to what we had before.” 

The mountains of Cherán

It is not only within Cherán where relations are strained. Communication with neighbouring towns has also been tense because of their involvement with illegal logging. Having depleted their own natural resources they started encroaching on Cherán’s land. Over a period of two years illegal loggers cut and burned 80 per cent of the community’s 24,000-hectare forest. Around 100 to 150 pick-up trucks, laden with illegally logged timber, passed daily through the town. Trees were cut day and night and loggers set fire to whatever was left. 

Those who made a living from the forest speak sadly of what they have lost. Not only is the land a source of income, where people tapped resin, picked mushrooms, wild herbs and collected firewood, but it is also part of their cultural heritage. The forest is essential to the people of Cherán and the newly formed Forestry Commission reflects this. The commission has recently, with help from the state government, started reforesting their land. But this is not their only concern, stresses Carlos Perez, one of the members of the forestry commission. He stresses that getting the government to take their concerns seriously and to provide security is a big problem. 

Héctor Magallón Larson, coordinator for the Greenpeace forest campaign in Mexico, agrees. “There is a lack of interest and also ability to act,” he states. “The current government is caught up in fighting those trafficking drugs and they don’t give priority to acts like illegal logging.” In the case of Cherán, logging happened in an environment of impunity. Perez is indignant, “the level of corruption in both Michoacán and Cherán is enormous,” he states. “Everyone knew the state and municipal police were involved.” 

Combating corruption 

The town’s community police patrol the forest protecting members of the community involved in reforestationThe town’s community police patrol the forest protecting members of
the community involved in reforestation. Photo: Nicolas Tavira.
All Rights Reserved.

Corruption is not only a mainstay of the police but also, say residents, of politicians and town representatives who were either involved or stood by and did nothing. Roberto Bautista Chapina, of the centre-right PRI party was elected mayor in 2008. Political fractions in the town led members of the left-leaning PRD party to reject the legally elected mayor and, in line with indigenous tradition, elected a figure to represent them. The representative, Javier Gembe Pahuama, is said to have aligned himself with organised crime, selling permits to illegal loggers.

This sentiment is echoed throughout the community of Cherán. People who worked in the forest tell how they saw municipal police escort pick-up trucks laden with timber. “They stopped traffic as they drove along the highway,” one resident who wishes to remain anonymous said. “The police escorted them at the front.” 

By banning political parties and by having a greater number of people involved in running the town, Espinosa believes that the commission offers greater transparency. “The movement comes from the street, from the weekly neighbourhood meetings and the communities keeping watch on every corner,” he states.

Corruption, negligence and compliance all come when there is an absence of governance, stresses David Peña, the lawyer representing the case. “It is not the case that there is no state,” he says. “Only that it is not doing its job as it should be.” One of the principal demands the movement has put to the government is that their safety is guaranteed. What the community wants, Peña says, is security, “In their streets, on roads outside the town and on public transport.” 

The security problem 

A masked man, member of the community police of Cherán, looks out from a church tower over the main square.A masked man, member of the community police of Cherán, looks
out from a church tower over the main square. Photo: Nicolas Tavira.
All Rights Reserved.

As illegal logging escalated so too did incidents of violence. Eight members of the community have been killed and a further four are missing. “Armed men started passing through the town, firing shots into the air and threatening residents,” says Espinoza. Since the town sealed itself off, taking control of its own security, residents report that they feel much safer. “At this time of the night there was never anyone outside.” says Hector Manual, a 49-year-old vet. “Members of organised crime could come at any time and kidnap someone.” It is 8pm and Manual is on night guard at one of the 200 fires now burning at the cross roads of streets. The town also has six barricades positioned at the different entrances to the town, which are manned 24 hours a day. 

The town now provides its own security, a type of community policing called the ronda. Every night a team of 22 men, one from each neighbourhood, patrol in defence of their streets. But it’s protection for those working in the forest that is most needed. “We are heading into four months and the government has done nothing to resolve this,” says Ramírez. The town is asking for the army to be sent, but members of the commission are very clear on the demands. “We are not asking for militarization, but that they come and stop those organisations that are affecting us,” says Espinoza. He explains that it is not within the town where security is a problem, but the land surrounding it. 

Where violence is present

From Monday to Saturday a group of 200 men leave the centre of Cherán and head out into the mountain to replant the trees they have lost. Accompanying them are 40 armed members of the ronda. The mountains around Cherán have provided the backdrop to most of the violence and some of the men are clearly nervous about going there. “The town closed because of the violence,” said one man, who did not want to give his name, “But the violence all started here in the mountain.” 

The commission says that it is a non-violent movement, but admits that it is hard to defend a town against heavily armed gangs without weapons. Espinoza is keen to point out that the people of Cherán did not start the violence. “We just want security, justice for our people, our forests, for our natural resources and for our children,” he states. He stresses that the town is mainly protected by sheer numbers of people on guard, but when organised crime is involved a certain degree of protection is needed.

Historical analogues 

The movement has grown as a result of the situation the town finds itself in, explains Peña. People are pushing back against violence, insecurity and the absence of effective government. But they are not the first community to do so. The case of Cherán shares striking similarities to the town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, Guatemala, in the late nineties. After the end of the civil war in 1996, the people of Santa Lucia formed a citizen’s movement with the aim of taking back control of the community from local drug lords and combating impunity and corruption. Like Cherán, the movement of Santa Lucia included women and youth organisations and there was a focus on literacy and development programs as well as demonstrations and civil disobedience. Santa Lucia built a successful communication network with other communities, which helped to support its cause. Cherán has recently initiated talks with indigenous towns in Mexico, which are experiencing similar types of problems. They share information and talk about common strategies. 

Beyond Latin America, the case of Cherán and its barricades even has certain similarities with the non-violent civilian-based defence that was used in Latvia in the early nineties. The threat of a Soviet invasion prompted the Latvian population to organise themselves to form barricades, much like those in Cherán, in which streets were blocked with vehicles and citizen vigils were held around the clock. 

The future for Cherán and its people remains uncertain. Yet one thing is clear, Cherán has become part of a larger legacy of self-organized non-violent movements striving to protect people’s security and the right to live as they wish. 

About the author

Lilian Palma is a freelance journalist and researcher writing on human rights, press freedom and Latin America. She is based in Mexico

 

 


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