As you approach the small town of Cherán in Michoacán, Mexico, armed men at a roadside barricade greet you and inquire about your destination and the purpose of your visit. In a country that has become increasingly militarized due to its war on drugs, these searches have become common — but what distinguishes this barricade is that the armed men are not government representatives. They are members of the Cherán community guard, and on their arms they brandish a purple, yellow, green, and sky-blue flag representing the indigenous Purépecha culture, and the autonomous government to which they report.
Three years ago residents of Cherán rose up in arms, tired of the narco-violence that had plagued their community for several years, and sick of the illegal logging that was taking place in their sacred forest, the Pakua Karakua. They erected roadside barricades at all the main through streets to prevent the passage of cargo trucks hauling away their virgin trees.
Close to 200 campfires — which is the traditional Purépechan setting for discussing community problems — sprouted up throughout the town and served as meeting points for neighbors to begin dialogue about security issues. Soon after, the unarmed community members, who refused to recognize the authority of the local government — represented by the historically powerful and corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — went en masse to the local police headquarters and relieved them of their weapons, confiscating the officer's firearms for their own use and protection. The 20 local police officers left town soon after, and haven't returned.
On April 15, Cherán residents celebrated the third anniversary of the uprising by hosting a weeklong event. They organized activities with public forums that focused on environmental protection, social movements, and autonomous governance. A parade snaked through the town, with elementary school students garbed in traditional indigenous attire and accompanied by members of the community guard (known as the ronda comunitaria), representatives of the indigenous council, and senior citizens. As night fell, the central plaza bustled with residents of all ages and vendors hawking Cherán's traditional cuisine. This sight would never have been seen three years ago, because residents of Cherán feared leaving their houses after dark.
Attention in recent months has focused on Michoacán, where self-defense groups were organized to purge the region of the Knights Templar cartel. The groups claimed that the government had failed to provide necessary security. What distinguishes the people of Cherán from those who formed most of these self-defense groups in the surrounding communities is that their resistance extends beyond kicking out the drug cartels to promoting collective values that are part of the Purépecha worldview.
Many of the self-defense groups are currently in negotiations with the government, and have agreed to a partial disarmament — which the residents of Cherán have said they will never agree to, mostly because their armament is legal according to the Mexican Constitution, which allows for the possibility of indigenous communities to maintain their own traditional guard.
In November 2011, the Mexican government granted a certain degree of autonomy to the residents of Cherán, allowing them to govern themselves according to indigenous "uses and customs" granted by Article 2 of the Mexican Constitution. They still pay taxes, receive federal and state funds, and participate in certain government programs, but can reject the authority of political parties and government security forces, which they believe collaborate with organized crime.
Alfonso Ceja helped tend the fire at one of the ceremonial campfires, and spoke about the long and arduous process of building autonomy in Cherán. "We're still in diapers," he told VICE News. "We've only been doing this for three years and have a long way to go. No one else has done anything like this before."
Several Cherán residents referenced the Zapatistas, whose struggle for the rights of indigenous people in Chiapas state has inspired the fight for autonomy in Michoacán. The difference in Cherán is that autonomy was granted as a result of a street and legal battle, as opposed to a guerrilla uprising.
Ceja works at one of the local elementary schools, and shared a picture book that was recently published in Purépecha to promote the usage of their indigenous language. At the group's one year anniversary, the council and several investigators from the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in conjunction with Espacio para la Cultura Ambiental (ECA) — an NGO dedicated to environmental education — decided to work on having the region recognized for its culture, and to educate local youths as part of a plan to reestablish local traditions and rebuild the town.
The book — which is jointly published by ECA, the K'eri High Council of Cherán, the Cherán Council of Communal Goods, the National Council of Science and Technology and the Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technology — is a systematic learning experience, covering the first two years of education. In February 2013, an initial run of 2000 copies was produced, but work is still being done within the community so that they can soon release a supplementary edition.
Ceja also spoke about the high rate of immigration, which he believes has contributed to a disregard for Purépecha culture and caused residents to place a higher value on material goods. As part of the anniversary celebrations, the community council organized a series of traditional games aiming to show that it's possible to have good clean fun without spending any money. While dozens of children skated barefoot down the hillside in mud canals, others flew handmade kites. Rafael Vicente, a local coordinator, told VICE News that the games allow them "to learn to be happy with what they have and promote co-living and brotherhood between the children and their parents."
Forest preservation also played a central role in the anniversary. Ceja explained that the forest is sacred for the Purépecha people. It doesn't simply provide lumber, but much of the community's sustenance.
"When our ancestors cut down a tree, they conducted a ritual," he said. "We are made of the sun, moon, land and rain."
Illegal logging in the area dates back to 2008, and it's estimated that over 80 percent of the forest — or approximately 44,000 acres — has been destroyed by the Templar Knights. The autonomous government has created a Council of the Commons, which is dedicated to protecting the trees and promoting reforestation.
A man named Fresno, who is a council member, told VICE News that he could not give his last name for security reasons, but he spoke about 18 community residents who were killed while tending to the forest. Fresno added that there has been little investigation into their deaths.
The Council of the Commons operates three micro-enterprises — a sawmill, a greenhouse, and a concrete block factory — which employ several dozen people. They say that conditions have improved in the forest but remain far from perfect and that they still face threats from illegal loggers and forest fires started by both natural and unnatural causes. Over a dozen members of the community guard are dedicated to patrolling the forests and cross-examining all trucks leaving the area with freshly cut logs.
"We're not just trying to replant a few thousand acres," Fresno said. "Instead, we're trying to instill deep changes. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the forests just as we did when we were young."
Community media has also played a central role in bringing about autonomy, with the creation shortly after the uprising of Radio Fogata (Campfire Radio). The announcers are mostly under the age of 25 and play a mix of pop music, community news, and announcements.
Two weeks after the uprising, a young woman named Angelica Martinez joined the community organization Youth United For Cherán; today, three years later, she helps manage Radio Fogata's operations. "We share what happens in the community," Martinez told VICE News. "Mainstream media always lies about what goes on here." She added that the majority of the station's members are female and that they help combat gender discrimination in the Purépechan community by showing that women can also help in the struggle. They plan to start a community television station in the coming year that will reach a wider audience.
While there was a general spirit of celebration in Cherán, it was clear that not all members of the community were pleased with the existence of an autonomous government.
"There is a lack of transparency," a local businessman who preferred to not give his name told VICE News. "Just like the politicians they kicked out, they have not upheld many of their promises." He complained of what he considered to be arbitrary decisions made by the community council. They recently prohibited a concert by El Komander, the king of narcocorrido music — which celebrates narcos and criminal groups — and arrested Juan Carlos as he posted promotional material for the event. The council believed that El Komander's presence was incompatible with the campaign against violence being undertaken in Cherán.
The businessman did, however, remark that before the uprising he and his family had to pay up to 8,000 pesos (roughly $600) a month to la maña, a colloquial nickname for shady local criminals.
"The last thing I would want to happen would be for them to get rid of the community guard," he said, "because they really have helped improve security in the area, and the coolest part is that they're all town residents."
After an absence of three years in Cherán, the political parties are now working on a return and have started posting propaganda in the area. It seems that they will attempt to regain ground and power in the 2015 local elections. Jeronimo Lemus, a Radio Fogata member, believes that people have to be patient. Instead of losing faith in the autonomous government, they should engage with it through neighborhood assemblies and participatory budgeting processes.
"Before, this kind of government was unimaginable and now we are living it," Lemus said. "That alone is a win for all."
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