In Mexico, organised crime reaches everywhere, even into the smallest village – except for one small town in the state of Michoacan. Led by local women, the people of Cheran rose up to defend their forest from armed loggers – and kicked out police and politicians at the same time.
The women met in secret to make their plans. They were sickened by the killings and kidnaps that had become routine and angered by the masked men who roamed their town demanding extortion payments from small businesses. And for more than three years they had watched, indignant, as truck after truck trundled past their homes piled high with freshly cut logs.
Mexico’s cartels once focused mainly on the drugs trade, but they have diversified their business model, and now seek to dominate any lucrative industry – including timber, the foundation of Cheran’s economy.
By 2011, the loggers were getting close to one of Cheran’s water springs.
“We were worried,” remembers Margarita Elvira Romero, one of the conspirators. “If you cut the trees, there’s less water. Our husbands have cattle – where would they drink if the spring was gone?”
A group of women went into the forest to try and reason with the armed men. They were verbally abused and chased away. So their plan evolved. Now they knew it was too dangerous to confront the loggers in the forest at the spring, they determined to stop the trucks in town where they would have the support of their neighbours.
Early on Friday 15 April 2011, Cheran’s levantamiento, or uprising, began. On the road coming down from the forest outside Margarita’s home, the women blockaded the loggers’ pick-ups and took some of them hostage. As the church bells of El Calvario rang out and fireworks exploded in the dawn sky alerting the community to danger, the people of Cheran came running to help. It was tense – hotheads had to be persuaded by the women not to string up the hostages from an ancient tree outside the church.
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“Everyone in the streets was running around with machetes,” says Melissa Fabian, who was then 13 years old. “Ladies were running around. They all covered their faces. You could hear people screaming, and the bells of the church just ringing out all the time.”
The municipal police arrived with the mayor, and armed men came to free their hostage-friends. There was an uneasy stand-off between the townspeople, the loggers and the police. It ended after two loggers were injured by a young man who shot a firework directly at them. And Cheran – a town of some 20,000 people – began its journey towards self-government.
“It makes me want to cry remembering that day,” says Margarita. “It was like a horror movie – but it was the best thing we could have done.”
The police and local politicians were quickly driven out of town because the people suspected they were collaborating with the criminal networks. Political parties were banned – and still are – because they were deemed to have caused divisions between people. And each of the four districts of Cheran elected representatives to a ruling town council. In many ways, Cheran – a town populated by the indigenous Purepecha people – returned to its roots: to the ancient way of doing things, independent of outsiders.
Meanwhile armed checkpoints were established on the three main roads coming in to town.
Today, five years later, those checkpoints still exist. They are guarded by members of the Ronda Comunitaria – a militia or local police force made up of men and women from Cheran. Every vehicle is stopped, its occupants questioned about where they have come from and where they are going.
“We’ve learnt a lot,” says Heriberto Campos, one of the founders and the co-ordinator of the Ronda Comunitaria whose nickname is “Diablo” or “Devil”. “In those early days, we didn’t know anything about using guns. But now we know how to fight, and if the criminals come back, we’re ready for them.”
Cheran dispenses its own justice for minor offences. Many of those are alcohol-related. On a September Sunday morning, 18 young men are sobering up behind bars at the Ronda’s headquarters after being picked up for drinking in the streets or driving under the influence of alcohol.
Penalties include fines and community work – such as litter-picking.
Serious law-breaking is referred to the attorney general. But in the last year there have been no murders, kidnaps or disappearances.
If you live somewhere unaccustomed to rampant, violent crime, you might not find this surprising. But Michoacan is one of Mexico’s bloodiest states – where severed heads have been rolled across dance floors and grenades have been lobbed into crowded plazas. In July, there were over 180 murders in the state – the highest number for nearly a decade. And in the communities around Cheran – not even 10km away – stories of kidnap, extortion and murder are commonplace.
“In Cheran, I feel safe because I can walk the streets at night, and I don’t fear that something’s going to happen,” says Melissa, who’s now an 18-year old bio-medical student at a college just outside Cheran.
It is not just the streets of Cheran that are secure. The pine forest – a sea of green that tumbles down the hills to the town below – was ravaged by the loggers. Now its perimeter is patrolled daily by the officers from the Ronda Comunitaria. Land in Cheran is mostly held in common – families manage it but they don’t own it. With the criminals gone, rules are strictly enforced – anyone who wants to fell a tree must secure permission from the authorities.
And slowly, the forest is being regenerated. It is estimated that over half the town’s 17,000 hectares of forest were devastated by organised crime. Some 3,000 hectares have so far been re-planted in the five years since the uprising, the seedlings nurtured in the town’s own tree nursery.
Cheran is not completely independent – it still has state and federal funding. But its autonomy as an indigenous Purepecha community is recognised and underwritten by the Mexican government. Its ban on political parties, meanwhile, has been upheld by the courts, which have confirmed its right not to participate in local, state or federal elections.
In the state of Michoacan, Cheran has become an oasis of hope – its peace and security a stark contrast to the fear that still dominates neighbouring communities. So why has it succeeded – thrived even – in such a cruel but beautiful region? Margarita, Melissa and Heriberto will give you the same one-word answer: solidaridad – solidarity.
Most people who live in Cheran are from the town. Social mores dictate that locals marry locals – there are very few outsiders here. Families are large, and they are close. Everyone knows everyone else. And that is the foundation of the town’s unity.
With violence again on the rise in Mexico, there is anxiety in Cheran about the future – a worry that the cartels could gain a foothold once more. Other towns have tried to copy Cheran’s example, but without the same success. Melissa is optimistic, and she is prepared to go out on the streets to fight for what has been achieved.
“As long as there’s at least one person that wants to keep this up, we will all stand behind them. We all feel proud because we stopped something, and did something that none of the other communities dared to do.”
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