Independent News from Alternative Sources
The La Familia cartel had plundered their sacred forest in broad daylight; they sold the wood to transnational corporations. The plight facing the community of 16,000 people, situated in the western portion of the Mexican state of Michoacán, was just part of a trend taking place throughout the region.
Other cartels, such as the Knights Templar, were extorting money from other industries. Those who didn’t pay and their families were kidnapped, murdered, and tortured. In Michoacán, local governments and police forces were either aiding and abetting the criminal elements or were powerless to stop them. Several towns formed self-defense forces in response.
A man belonging to a self-defense group that formed to fight organized crime stands at a checkpoint in Paracuaro – Image credit: AP (Associated Press).
Profesor Trinidad Ramírez, an elementary school teacher in Cheran, is one of 12 community members elected to a council that governs the town. Al Jazeera spoke to Ramirez; the following is an abbreviated interview.
It was a product of all the criminal pillaging of our forests. Cherán has been a community that always has lived together with its environment, with our nature. And well, our forests had always been coveted, well, by everyone, no?
In 2008, a new municipal president started his management. And it’s known there was a lot of money behind the purchase of votes for him. Today we know how much it cost and who was going to pay. And then the looting of our forests began. Places that had never been pillaged before, had never been exploited, started being exploited.
We started to see strange people chopping down the forest, armed people. We are fighters, but we do not use arms. So fear started growing in the population. The ones that dared to defend our forest are, unfortunately, no longer with us. They were assassinated in a cowardly manner. And I say cowardly because they were murdered with so much brutality.
There’s a very sad story where a grandfather was going with his grandsons to defend the forest, where all their life, since their ancestors’ time, they had lived and had learned to extract what they needed to be able to live, no? And when the grandfather dared to go to defend that part of his forest, he was taken by the malandros, as we call them. And he was murdered in front of his grandsons.
Were there specific events that led to April 15, 2011?
Through the streets, around 200, 300 trucks circulated, loaded with wood. There are thousands of cubic meters that they took away. And they got to one of the most important places, the place that’s supplying us with the most water. It is half of the population’s water supply. In Purepecha, it is calledCharati. Those places, for us, are untouchable.
So they knocked some pine trees from there down. And that worried our people more and increased the anger. And that’s how we got to April 15th. On April 15th, a group of ladies organizes itself….
What did the ladies do?
Around 5 in the morning, the church bell began to chime. It wasn’t a call to mass. It’s different than the chime that we are used to. They’re like passwords that we have in case of danger or in need of a meeting. We have had that since forever. And, well, we already knew what it was about.
The ladies tried to stop the first cars. Unfortunately, the cars, instead of stopping, went straight to them. That’s what provoked the rage. We don’t know where the muchachos emerged from—if they were already aware of the plan or had organized with the same goal.
Not only did they stop the cars, but they were burning them. In other words, everything went loose. All the contained rage, all the contained impotence was unleashed there. And they detained five of thetalamontes. Others were able to escape.
Were there any repercussions from burning the cars?
Around 9 or 10 in the morning, hitmen tried to rescue the talamontes. People heavily armed came in with some heavily armed pickup trucks. The sad thing is that they were guided by our very own municipal police. How is it that the people that are supposed to protect us are the ones guiding criminals, no? And well, there was an unequal confrontation.
Did many people die?
The hitmen were heavily armed, and our people had only sticks and stones and fireworks. It was the fireworks that saved us. Or saved anyone from dying that day. They only injured a 28-year-old young man. He sustained a head injury and, well, he’s still convalescing.
And from there you made drastic decisions as community, like replacing the president and beginning the path to self-government. How did that take place?
That day, a group of people went to where the municipal president was working and practically chased off everyone that was there. Because the police were the ones guiding the hitmen, well that gave an indication that all the officials were the same. That day, well, it was a mess because nothing was planned. Everything was spontaneous. What had been repressed before in that moment overflowed…..
A negotiating commission was formed, a coordination of the neighborhoods, and a general commission. The general commission was appointed to submit a petition because we needed to identify the problems we wanted to solve.
What did you identify as the problems? And how was this new local government received?
Security, justice, and restoration of our forests…
Police officers are forced to surrender their weapons to armed vigilantes in Paracuaro after the group seized control – Image credit: AP (Associated Press).
We were prepared with fliers, and we were making the purpose of our movement known. Around 2pm in the afternoon, when we got to the main plaza, people from Morelia were already waiting for us with food, with water. We saw that our movement had a reason to exist.
With everything that has happened in Michoacán, do you believe that Cherán is the role model for the self-defense forces to follow?
We don’t know exactly what is it that others defend. If you defend your town, we praise you and respect you. But if you defend other interests, then we have to question what you defend. Those other regions are very rich, no? If they’re very productive zones—lemon farms, lemon producers, big mines—sometimes we think that the self-defense forces emerge precisely to defend those interests. We go back to saying, “If they emerge because of the true necessity to defend the community, well, we think it’s right. But, if they emerge from different interests, we must be careful.”