In the area around Mount San Miguel at the outskirts of Cherán, a small town in Mexico’s Michoacán state, hundreds of tree stumps dot the landscape on either side of the road. As we rode together in an old pick-up truck, in May last year, “Panther” told me about the illegal loggers that had terrorised Cherán for years. “Every day, more than a hundred trucks passed this road,” he said, “filled with freshly cut logs.”
Panther then pointed out a place on the mountain where criminals associated with the loggers once ran a methamphetamine laboratory. “We had to do something,” he told me. “They were wiping us out.”
The loggers, he said, were affiliated with some of the country’s most powerful drug cartels, and got a free pass from the town’s authorities and police. They gained control of Cherán in 2008, and over the next three years, were reportedly behind numerous incidents of rape, murder, kidnapping and extortion. In that time, the loggers devastated around 7,000 of the 27,000 hectares of forest land that surrounds Cherán. When the criminals started logging around La Cofradía, a water spring the town’s cattle drank from, Cherán could not take it anymore.
On 15 April 2011, thousands of townspeople, armed with sticks, stones and fireworks, took on the loggers, who were carrying rifles and machine guns. After a tense standoff, the criminals were driven out of the town. The people also expelled the area’s entire police force and its major politicians, whom they suspected to have been in cahoots with the criminals. Cherán’s residents then elected local representatives, and formed a local militia to guard the town. Currently, the 18,000 people of Cherán, almost all of whom belong to the Purépecha indigenous community in Mexico, and are guarded by a force of 90 members, who operate under pseudonyms such as “Devil,” “Coyote” and “Panther.”
Cherán is far from the only town in Michoacán to have struggled with violence from the cartels. The state, in which at least two people are killed every day, is one of Mexico’s most violent. According to a report by Mexico’s National Commission for Security, about 90 percent of Michoacán’s policemen have links with criminals. Between 2006 and 2015, roughly 1,323 drug laboratories were found in Mexico, nearly one third of which were in the state. Thus, compared to its surroundings, Cherán seems utopian, having emerged as the safest town in the state. The central and state governments have since recognised Cherán as an autonomous region, and provide it funds.
Its success became an inspiration for other towns that were facing corruption and violence. In subsequent years, Urapicho, Turicuaro, Cherato, Cheratillo and Oruscato created their own community-police forces. In the closest town, Nahuatzen, the settlers kicked out their mayor, Miguel Prado, because of his supposed links with organised crime. But none of these communities could demolish the entire state machinery and form their own government, as Cherán did. By 2014, many of these movements had fallen apart because of their links with local mafias, among other reasons. Cherán’s neighbouring communities are still suffering at the hands of the Knights Templar, one of the many mutations of the infamous cartel La Familia Michoacana that are active in the region.
The failure of these movements shows the immense power and influence drug cartels wield in Mexico. They run parallel governments in many areas, and those who do not obey get terrifying punishments. This is what makes Cherán’s achievement even more significant.
Riding in the truck, Panther told me about the extent to which members of the drug cartels—The Company, Knights Templar and the New Familia Michoacana—controlled the town. According to him, the cartels managed the roads and the municipal police protected them. “They were making good money with logging, extortion and kidnapping,” he told me. “I paid 250,000 pesos”—roughly $11,000—“for my uncle. When they brought him back, he had been tortured and was almost dead.” Then, a cousin of Panther’s was killed in a bar fight with a sicario, or hit man. Almost every resident of the town has similar stories to tell from the time.
On that morning in April 2011, a group of Purépecha women, many of whom had lost their husbands to violence, confronted a few illegal loggers near a church and took them hostage. As news of the face-off spread, the townspeople started running towards the spot, even as church bells were being rung constantly to beckon everyone. “I heard rockets and bells,” Seferiana Fabian, currently the head of Cherán’s women’s council, recalled. “It was a riot.”
A woman who was part of the mob told me that people kept showing up at the church through the morning. Then, some loggers allied with the Knights Templar arrived to rescue their comrades and started shooting in the air. But the crowd didn’t budge, and seeing its size, the criminals had to retreat.
The same day, the municipal police and politicians were also driven out, and a group of villagers barricaded the three roads that come into Cherán. They also lit fires in every corner of the four quarters of the town, around which people gathered to decide the future course of action. The fires would be lit every week, and people kept showing up in large numbers to organise and take control of the town’s administration.
Soon, the streets became safer. The established political parties were banned. In each quarter, new governors were elected. The citizens created their own institutions—12 councils that constitute the local government. These include councils for health, education, justice, women’s issues, sports, civil rights and social programmes, among others. The town also enacted its own laws.
At the same time, the community’s police force was formed, which has been instrumental to Cherán’s success at keeping criminals at bay. The members created their own security codes, trained one another and took control of the former policemen’s rifles. The policemen do not use their real names, and try not to show their faces, often wearing bandanas as masks. “At the beginning it was very dangerous,” an autonomous policeman, posted at La Cofradía, told me. “The bad guys were getting together, and were trying to take control of the town again. They killed two of us in the mountain.”
But the community police only got stronger with time. Cherán refused help with administration from the Mexican government. Its citizens believed that the only way to eradicate violence and corruption was to eradicate traditional authorities: political parties and municipal police. The community police keeps an eye on who enters the town by guarding the three barricades, built with piles of old tires and bags of sand.
With five years of self-rule, Cherán’s government is one of a kind in Mexico. “It has been very difficult to become autonomous,” Samuel Rosas, an official of Cherán’s justice council, told me. “We are short on funds and resources.” Currently, their biggest challenge is to harmonise their laws with those of the federal government. Teresa Ulloa, an attorney with the Center for Research and Social Action—a non-profit that is training the townspeople in such things as community governance—told me, “The state is putting up many obstacles in recognising Cherán’s institutions as legal.” Cherán does not receive as much funding as other towns, she told me, and groups from old political parties continuously lobby for a return of the old system. And cartels, which are ubiquitous in the state, are still a major threat.
But the people of Cherán are confident that their political experiment will work. The Purépecha, they say, have a long tradition of defending their territory. The people feel a sense of communal pride, and brag about their unity and ability to fight. José Gómez, a lawyer from the town, told me, “Cherán bows its head, but only to think about how to rise again.”
Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. She writes about crime, violence, politics and social matters in Latin America, Europe and the United States. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times en Español, El País, Vice News and Folha de São Paulo, among other publications.