The woman’s exhausted eyes reflected the flames dancing in front of her. A 38-year-old grandmother, she is also a leader of the civilian insurgency that has taken over this mountain town in the state of Michoacán, 310 miles west of Mexico City. Sixteen months of cold and sleepless nights at Bonfire No. 17, one of a number of permanent burning barricades set up here, have taken their toll.
But like the rest of the residents, she cannot afford to let her guard down.
On the morning of April 15, 2011, using rocks and fireworks, a group of women attacked a busload of AK-47-armed illegal loggers as they drove through Cherán, residents said. The loggers, who local residents say are protected by one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations and given a virtual free pass by the country’s authorities, had terrorized the community at will for years.
Cherán’s residents said they had been subjected to multiple episodes of rape, kidnapping, extortion and murder by the paramilitary loggers, who have devastated an estimated 70 percent of the surrounding oak forests that sustained the town’s economy and indigenous culture for centuries.
What happened next was extraordinary, especially in a country where the rule of law is often absent and isolated communities are frequently forced to accept the status quo. Organized criminal syndicates, like the drug cartel La Familia, created in Michoacán, act like a state within a state, making their own rules and meting out grisly punishments to those who do not obey.
But here in Cherán, a group of townspeople took loggers hostage, expelled the town’s entire police force and representatives of established political parties, and forcibly closed the roads.
The Mexican government authorities had previously ignored their repeated pleas for help, the residents said, so the people of Cherán simply took the law into their own hands.
“I felt my knees shake like castanets,” said the woman standing vigil at Bonfire No. 17, Rocio, who, like others here, withheld her last name for fear of reprisals by the criminal networks they are resisting. She recalled her overwhelming fear during those first days of revolt, when residents gathered around as many as 200 bonfires set up at every intersection in town to prevent the loggers from retaliating.
In the months since then, Cherán’s townspeople have established a simple but effective internal protection system. There are fewer bonfires today, but several remain active and a security patrol of residents, or “ronda,” keeps watch at all times. Armed townspeople — from middle-age men to teenage girls — guard the barricades blocking all entrances into town. Their weapons are AR15 assault rifles, seized from the police when they expelled them.
Inside the town, they say, crime is now down almost to zero and most residents seem to feel safe. In recent days, however, people from nearby communities have taken several federal police officers captive, demanding that the newly instated forest patrols be canceled so that they can continue their logging activities. (The officers have since been released.) It is unclear if the hostage-takers were illegal loggers, but tensions are flaring in Cherán as the rest of the country looks on with concern.
Last November, in a court appeal, Cherán acquired a degree of autonomy from the Mexican government; the town still receives federal and state money, and its people must pay taxes, but they are allowed to govern themselves under a legal framework called “uses and customs” that has been granted to some indigenous communities.
Legal experts and academics say that Cherán is the first community to be granted this right as a result of a conflict over natural resources with one of the country’s increasingly powerful criminal syndicates.