Civil Society, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Native Community Defends Land Against Loggers, Organised Crime

Daniela Pastrana

CHERÁN, Mexico, Jun 29 2011 (IPS) - “Our patience has run out,” says Mary, an indigenous woman with three children to care for on her own, since her husband was kidnapped from his home by an armed group. In this town in western Mexico, local residents have begun to defend themselves with sticks and stones against illegal loggers and organised crime groups that are their allies.

Indigenous children hold placards supporting the struggle in Cherán. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Indigenous children hold placards supporting the struggle in Cherán. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

“It’s very sad, because my husband was a really fine, upright person. He was a member of the communal lands committee, and when the problems with the ‘talamontes’ (gangs of illegal loggers) began, he informed the authorities, but no one paid any attention, and now they’ve taken him away,” Mary told IPS about her husband’s Feb. 10 kidnapping.

She displayed an embroidery she had made, depicting a woman of her ethnic group, the Purépecha people, and a legend reading: “Wife of 1 kidnapped person. Wife of 1 disappeared person. The struggle continues.” She has embroidered four dozen of these placemats, which she planned to sell to support her family, but she has ended up giving them all away.

“I don’t believe (the state and federal governments) can help us. I don’t know who to turn to for help. That’s why we’ve run out of patience, and are fed up with waiting for someone to come to our aid, and now the local people are determined to do what we think is best,” Mary said.

Her husband Rafael García is one of six indigenous people who were forcibly disappeared in the last three years in Cherán, in the state of Michoacán, which has one of the highest levels of violence in Mexico, and is the operating area for the La Familia drug cartel.

A further 12 indigenous people have been murdered due to confrontations with the “talamontes” who are in cahoots with organised crime groups. Local and state authorities have turned a blind eye or have actively protected the criminals.

IPS came to Cherán with part of the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity headed by poet Javier Sicilia, although Sicilia was not present during the visit.

The contingent of four trucks and half a dozen smaller vehicles arrived on Sunday Jun 26, bringing food supplies to the community, and was greeted by the townspeople with celebrations involving traditional local music, dancing and dishes.

“For three years we have tried to solve the problems with words; then we made great efforts to stop the trucks by digging ditches in the roads, but they still didn’t get the message. The politicians responded with the kind of words that only deceive and destroy,” said Salvador Campanú, who on Jun. 23 represented Cherán in a dialogue between victims of violence and President Felipe Calderón.

Local residents explain that San José mountain was denuded by the “talamontes” starting in 2008, and when there were no trees left in that area they began to deforest La Cofradía mountain as well. But the people of Cherán put up resistance, and that was when the murders, kidnappings and extortion began.

The townspeople rose up Apr. 15 armed with cudgels, stones and “coetones” (homemade rocket fireworks) to oust the armed men. They put up barricades at the roads leading into the town, but 10 days later they had run out of food and asked the national government to send in the security forces.

However, the soldiers and federal forces merely overflew this town of 13,000 people and took up positions on the outskirts. Since then, only civil society organisations and religious groups have entered the conflict zone, bringing food supplies.

Today Cherán is a town that is seeking self-government.

The local people’s assembly, which has taken over the mayor’s functions, has already sent word to the electoral authorities that no party-based elections will be held here in November, as they will elect their own authorities.

Schools are closed, but community teachers have organised extramural classes. In the absence of a local ombudsman (there is one, but he does not practice) they formed an “honour and justice council”.

However, their top priority is security. They have built 200 barricades around the town and established the “community watch,” which carries out street-by-street vigilance in the four zones into which the town is divided.

The community watch is a grassroots autonomous defence mechanism to protect the town and local lands against the criminal gangs.

The watch participants are mainly young men, carrying only cudgels and stones as weapons, who wander the streets at all hours, bandannas covering their faces below the eyes, with homemade identification cards dangling from their necks reading “community watch.”

“Fear and the instinct for self-preservation are stronger than the desire to roam beyond Cherán,” one of these community policemen says. His face is hidden behind his bandanna and he wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons. “I haven’t been outside the town for two months, because I don’t want to leave my family alone here,” he added.

According to the townspeople, criminal organisations charge the “talamontes” fees for the armed protection they provide to ensure the loggers can fell timber illegally, extort businesses, kidnap and rob at will.

People in Cherán interviewed by IPS accuse the leader of a La Familia group that operates in Purépecha, Cuitláhuac Hernández from the village of Rancho Seco, of being responsible for the depredation of their land.

But they added that the chief person to blame for the overall situation is Mayor Roberto Bautista Chapina, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), because he allows the illegal gangs to operate freely in the region.

One of those who holds this view is Zenaida Vázquez, whose husband Domingo Chávez disappeared May 28. His body was found Jun. 9 on Tecolote hill, with his feet and face scorched.

The mayor told Vázquez that he had most probably died accidentally in a fire, although a post-mortem examination in Celaya found a bullet wound in his body.

The community watch policeman who spoke to IPS was the person who found Chávez’s remains. “It was horrible seeing how he had been hurt,” he said. “I don’t know the name of the ombudsman or of the mayor, but what I do know is that things here have got very ugly, and although I have never been mixed up in these matters, now I have to get involved in order to defend my family.”

Security may be seen as men’s business, but women have helped bring people together in their anger.

“We are present at the campfires, keeping watch and preparing food. We all know that three rockets and a flare are the signal to bring us all out onto the streets,” said Marcelina, preparing tortillas at a barricade.

“We are rather fearful because of our children. But what else can we do, when they are destroying our forests and kidnapping our men?”

The people of Cherán are holding out in the trenches, hoping for no more deaths or disappearances. They are looking for their own solutions, such as that of Adalberto Muñoz and his wife Rosalinda, who built a small greenhouse in their back yard where they have dozens of fir trees ready for transplanting.

“We collected rainwater when the troubles began, in order to have water, because the mayor cut off our electricity. But we have to keep going, because it’s our land and our survival that are at stake. We aren’t going to wait for the authorities any longer,” said Rosalinda.

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