By KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
Published: August 2, 2012
CHERÁN, Mexico — The woman’s exhausted eyes reflected the flames dancing in front of her. A 38-year-old grandmother, she is also a leader of the civilian insurgency that has taken over this mountain town in the state of Michoacán, 310 miles west of Mexico City. Sixteen months of cold and sleepless nights at Bonfire No. 17, one of a number of permanent burning barricades set up here, have taken their toll.
But like the rest of the residents, she cannot afford to let her guard down.
On the morning of April 15, 2011, using rocks and fireworks, a group of women attacked a busload of AK-47-armed illegal loggers as they drove through Cherán, residents said. The loggers, who local residents say are protected by one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations and given a virtual free pass by the country’s authorities, had terrorized the community at will for years.
Cherán’s residents said they had been subjected to multiple episodes of rape, kidnapping, extortion and murder by the paramilitary loggers, who have devastated an estimated 70 percent of the surrounding oak forests that sustained the town’s economy and indigenous culture for centuries.
What happened next was extraordinary, especially in a country where the rule of law is often absent and isolated communities are frequently forced to accept the status quo. Organized criminal syndicates, like the drug cartel La Familia, created in Michoacán, act like a state within a state, making their own rules and meting out grisly punishments to those who do not obey.
But here in Cherán, a group of townspeople took loggers hostage, expelled the town’s entire police force and representatives of established political parties, and forcibly closed the roads.
The Mexican government authorities had previously ignored their repeated pleas for help, the residents said, so the people of Cherán simply took the law into their own hands.
“I felt my knees shake like castanets,” said the woman standing vigil at Bonfire No. 17, Rocio, who, like others here, withheld her last name for fear of reprisals by the criminal networks they are resisting. She recalled her overwhelming fear during those first days of revolt, when residents gathered around as many as 200 bonfires set up at every intersection in town to prevent the loggers from retaliating.
In the months since then, Cherán’s townspeople have established a simple but effective internal protection system. There are fewer bonfires today, but several remain active and a security patrol of residents, or “ronda,” keeps watch at all times. 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.
Inside the town, they say, crime is now down almost to zero and most residents seem to feel safe. In recent days, however, people from nearby communities have taken several federal police officers captive, demanding that the newly instated forest patrols be canceled so that they can continue their logging activities. (The officers have since been released.) It is unclear if the hostage-takers were illegal loggers, but tensions are flaring in Cherán as the rest of the country looks on with concern.
Last November, 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.
Legal experts and academics say that Cherán is the first community to be granted this right as a result of a conflict over natural resources with one of the country’s increasingly powerful criminal syndicates.
The residents’ actions have ignited a regional spark of do-it-yourself justice. In nearby Opopeo, residents have organized community patrols and created an alert system using church bells. In Santa Clara del Cobre, disgruntled townspeople kidnapped their police force for several days last February, suspecting it of having abducted and “disappeared” a local man accused of rape.
Still, the neighboring communities have not gone as far as Cherán. “If we do that here, we would need someone to take the lead, and if they did, they’ll kill him,” said Noe Pamatz, 64, a former member of the civilian security organization in Opopeo. He quit last month after its leader was found murdered.
Cherán’s residents say they were inspired to push for autonomy by some notable precedents. In 1994, Subcommander Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista rebels, staged an uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, demanding better treatment for the indigenous communities there, placing the issue on the national political agenda.
The next year, Oaxaca became one of a handful of states to formally include the system of “uses and customs” for indigenous areas in its constitution. At the same time, indigenous communities in Guerrero, angered over the ineffectiveness and corruption of the local police, organized “community police forces” that have been largely successful, and remain in operation today.
The hurdles that Cherán has faced in recent years highlight the plight of Mexico’s most disenfranchised communities, which have suffered disproportionately during the nation’s drug wars, often without national notice.
“It’s not Acapulco, where you have foreign investment; it’s not Ciudad Juárez, where you have the maquiladora industry,” said David Peña, a lawyer representing the residents of Cherán. “It’s just a miserable little indigenous town.”
Cherán now exists in an uneasy calm, but its residents are beginning to doubt their survival as an island amid hostile waters. In late July, an army base was set up near Cherán after two residents were killed when they ventured into the forests. Since April 2011, other residents have been murdered under similar circumstances. The presence of soldiers provides a level of comfort, residents say, but even Obdulio Ávila, deputy secretary of Mexico’s Interior Ministry, acknowledges that it may not be enough.
“It is difficult to have security in the whole municipality,” he said. “In fact, it is materially impossible.”
The forests around Cherán have also suffered a stark physical transformation. Burned tree stumps and weeds have replaced the old, impenetrable groves.
“You can see that an entire beautiful forest existed and no longer does,” said Pedro, a native of Cherán who moved to Southern Illinois 35 years ago and last visited in 2009. Pedro and other expatriates have sent money and basic staples to their families still living in the embattled town since they began their uprising.
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.
With access to the forests cut off, Cherán’s economy is beginning to dwindle. Unemployed woodworkers are now trying to secure odd jobs inside the town, but there are few to be had. The prized colorful, fleshy mushrooms are sold at increasingly high prizes in the main square. Outside support has become increasingly vital.
“They are living practically off of the remittances coming in from the United States,” Leonardo Velazquez, a hospital administrator living in Cherán, said of his neighbors. Indeed, Michoacán was the Mexican state with the highest flow of remittances in 2011 and the first three months of 2012. Still, the state’s economy appears to be falling apart.
Here in Cherán, the women around Bonfire No. 17 talked late into the chilly night about their fallen comrades and their devastated forests. They seemed to find energy in their scorching tea and courage in the words of a song that a woman seated next to Rocio had been composing.
“I have lived, but what are we going to give our children?” she sang, a toddler son clinging to her thick wool sweater. “They won’t even be able to buy a little log like the ones we are burning here.”