It was the Children’s Peace Theatre camp with La Bufon S.O.S.ial that took me to Cheran. I had for several years followed citizen rights and security being gradually compromised by organised crime, specially drug trafficking, with serious social implications in the State of Michoacan, of which the town of Cheran is part.
While in the Yucatan peninsula I had had the pleasure of meeting friend “Nano” and taken one of his Clown workshops as a personal project, experiencing acting as well as writing about it. La Bufón S.O.S.ial is Nano’s implementation of the Canadian Children’s Peace Theatre camps, tuned to our rural environment and the social challenges they face in particular. If my writing and photography could continue the trip Nano and his group were about to make to Cheran and teach photography to children, I wanted to be there. So I hitched a ride and did.
It was the town of Cheran that had invited Nano’s group over. The experience became an unforgettable learning opportunity on how the people of Cheran had done away with all municipality corrupt officials and stopped the associated illegal felling of trees, that peaked in april 2011 and triggered the changes. Felling was long performed by drug cartels and included labour from people that had been kidnapped from states as Sinaloa and ended up working as slaves in the forests of Cheran, as well.
Felling is a source of funding for the cartels. A very simple question to have asked and follow-up on was who bought the illegal timber from them? The answer is not simple, since colluded municipal authorities issued legal timber permits to the loot or, in another mode, wood was processed as planks in illegal hidden mills, out of which they came legal of course. All the towns around Cheran, including it, manufacture furniture out of these, so any evidence disappeared quickly anyway.
With indiscriminate felling stopped at least within the hills of Cheran, the problem that remains is that it is easy for anyone with enough financial resources to pay for the felling to continue happen; it still does. Any village on the other side of Cheran’s hills can get hired for money to do it. “Take the town of Tanaco for example”, told me the communal watches I was up in the hills with in late June planting trees with. So in fighting felling, Cheran citizens are fighting their brothers just on the other side of the hill.
Money to finance felling can well be coming from cartels as from state strong business men or politicians: telling the difference has become a line so thin that it does not seem to exist anymore.
That makes it the Council’s top agenda to be able to export their model into all the surrounding towns, and from there on to the countries’ indigenous people. Precisely, the issue here is a governance model that takes them into account, and through them, get society – you and me – back to our senses, so we care and live with our environment in a rational way that balances out all that we are eating up and that’s left, in an absolutely careless manner.
Cheran’s current model achievements have much to show, instead of the extinct and vulnerable municipal one. Their people – particularly women in the beginning – took control of the town in 2011 and set up a citizens’ Council made out of twelve K’eri (tatas or abuelitos i.e.: elderlies), out of which at least one is a woman. They managed to clean their town free of the drug cartels and illegal timber activities that had done away with nearly 20,000 hectares out of the 27,000 total of forest land in a few years. It was not easy and lives were lost. They also had to negotiate with the Federal government during the difficult days at the highest of the conflict. Then just recently, in May 27th., Cheran received the Supreme Court ruling they had seeked, favouring their administration model based on the established practices of the indigenous people, in this case the P’urépecha, and forcing State governments – not solely Michoacan’s – to hold consultations about any measures that might affect communities’ administration that is appointed as a result of their indigenous people’s decisions. The ruling opens the door for change all throughout Mexico, for communities governance to be based on traditional rights or customs, that can now be legally called consuetudinary rights.
In the meantime, Cheran citizens have focused in agriculture and have become self sufficient, including feeding from their own creole corn and not the GMO industrial widespread options. Citizens are actively involved in bettering their town, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, through Sunday faenas – organised citizen task forces.
It has been by returning to their ancient practices and governance methods, used since the P’urépechas pre-Columbian natives established in this high plains of central Mexico and from there to the northern sate of Sinaloa, that they have – the Council and its citizens literally working hand to hand – managed to better their quality of life, seed conservancy ideas in their children and have started a much needed reforestation effort of what they deem their heritage and the world’s: forests that is.
In doing so, Cheran formed communal watches that oversee town security and also act as forest rangers. Rangers are basically engaged in securing zones under reforestation. These are well trained and regularly equipped (M1, R15 weapons).
This is not to say that Cheran’s communal watches are to be confused with Michocán’s autodefensas. The latter are guerrilla type forces that have gotten organised across the state – and lately have branched into nine other states of Mexico -, of which Dr. José Manuel Mireles’ is one of the most known. These strongly armed forces were formed to fight the drug cartels that jeopardised citizen’s families, organised racketing, charged business quotas and kidnapped women and men, in Michoacán towns, specially towards the Pacific coast. They then went on to fight the cartels openly and street shootings became frequent. Mexico’s law enforcement agencies have tolerated him and the military have been aware and close to the events. Mexico’s National Security Council commissioner Manuel Mondragón as well as Mexico’s Interior Secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong declared that they had to protect Mireles as a moral leader of the Autodefensas movement and for his dedication to fighting the Caballeros Templarios cartel. Osorio had in fact given orders to the Federal Police to so do. The problem arises in that it is difficult to ascertain who’s who in the battle, as autodefensas’ lines count retired or convert militants of cartels such as Servando Gómez Martínez, alias El Profe or La Tuta’s Caballeros Templarios”, that remain being active. Who finances the autodefensas? Why are their trucks labelled with the names of lime, avocado and cattle ranches? Are these ranches’ interest at stake as well? If so, are their owners not just interested in protecting what’s theirs? Are these people in anyway related to the power play on the top?
Autodefensas have had to be treated and understood as separate organisations, depending on the state zone that they control, and not a single movement.
To complicate matters, it is also a known fact by the people of communities such as Cheran’s, that the government – State and Federal had been working together with some of the autodefensas, such as Mireles’, until just a week ago when, a couple of days after Michoacan’s Governor’s Fausto Vallejo’s resignation, Mireles was detained and brought in for questioning, in a joint Mexican military and Federal police operation in the village of La Mira, Michoacan, on June 27th.
Mireles is now to be sentenced for the blatant reason of being in possession of weapons reserved for Army use only and for having formed a unit of people using them. Federal authorities had reasons to go further and also sought charges on organised crime related to drug smuggling, but evidence did not support them. Publicly available videos in Youtube, filmed in May weeks before this event, show a concerned Mireles calmly addressing President Peña Nieto asking why was he being cut the aid he had been given previously, and how him and other important leaders (who’s code names he gives) want to help the President win this war. In the video Mireles quotes conversations he had had with known civil rights activists like poet Javier Sicilia and ; Mireles knew he was coming down. Days before the video, in May 7, Mireles had accused the government of having pulled the strings in a way that only one of thirty six community leaders associated to the Michoacan Autodefensas Council had shown to a scheduled meeting and supported him. He was thus expelled from the Council and this lead to his detention. The State of Michoacan Security commissioner Alfredo Castillo had declared Mireles was under investigation for a murder in the town of La Mira. Days after the Council meeting, Michoacan recognised other Autodefensas and brought them in uniform under the umbrella of a single Rural Police. Estanislao Beltrán alias Papá Pitufo – an Autodefensas leader friend of Mireles, was among them. His statement “Ahora somos gobierno” (were are Government now) says it all – or at least that’s what the State government would like it to be, closing the Autodefensas chapter, but of course not solving the social problem nor the cartels one, at all. On May 15th. Mireles’ organisation had written to Beltrán pointing out how they all went back thirty years to their university years, how they read Mao’s red book and had ideals then, as opposed to Beltran’s over 300 hectares of lime plantations and many vehicles (implying wealth). What happened to you? How did Peña Nieto get to you? (implying corruption).
One can also watch available videos from La Tuta, -Caballeros Templarios-, explaining why they also see it as their duty to have armed men avoiding cartels coming entering their Michoacán territory from the bordering state of Jalisco. La Tuta and others in Michoacan see their acts as just part of their job. They see themselves as being fair; people in villages and towns like them as they solve their needs, such as healthcare and supplies, among others areas where, for decades now, the government has retired completely.
It is the Sinaloa cartel head – with the February 2014 re-capture of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, that has been one of the few, if any, victories on the administration continuing its a-la-mexicana-war-on-terror. We do not really know if it on our Mexican version of “terror”, war against cartels, or against themselves, namely a battle for power shifting after a new federal administration-. On February 24th., El Chapo’s sons, and specifically Alfredo Guzmán, tweeted “El Gobierno va a pagar por la traición, no debió morder la mano la que le dio de tragar” (The government will pay for this betrayal, it should not have bitten the hand that fed it”)
So, in summary, Autodefensas form back in February 2011 in Tepalcatepec and nearby towns of Michoacan, by Mireles and others, to fight cartels and protect their own families. Fighting gets to the streets, the military watch behind if not share some form of logistics support (people speak about the Colombianization of Mexico’s situation, generally, but it was also a fact that Mexico had Colombian retired police general Oscar Naranjo as a security aide to the president 2012 though 2104, where strategy had to do with forming mixed special forces and aiming to reduce violence in the country in the first 100 administration days, as opposed to the army frontal war that previous president Calderón had launched ineffectively). Eventually Michoacan governor resigns unavoidably sprayed and the most visible of the Autodefensas leader, Mireles, is made by Federal government both “the problem” and his detainment “the solution”. The rest happens behind the smoke screen, which is bringing other autodefensas groups into the State government and closing their chapter as an independent movement. Michoacan’s security commissioner declared “There are no Autodefensas in the State of Michoacan any more” a few days ago. The question, behind this at the very best crude façade, where solutions are just declarations, is really what does all of this have to do with civil rights, social disparity, cartels still controlling zones and their trade and organisations still operating in place? In a parallel timeline, the Sinaloa cartel gets hit, while the Templarios strong cartel in Michoacan get another calling card by detaining La Tuta’s son (something that anyone could have done earlier as he published his parties and lifestyle all over social media!). Meanwhile, as autodefensas spread into other states, so have cartels; La Familia Michoacana – Where La Tuta comes from and whom he parted ways with forming Caballeros Templarios-, is knocking the doors of neighbours living to the north east of Mexico metropolitan area, asking for “voluntary” donations. I was in one of this houses in the Iztacalco municipality where this happened. It’s already a fact that these citizens have to live with. “They call you and know everything you own, do and have for family and at the bank!” told me the woman in the house I was staying.
In other words, trying to find out who are the good and who are bad in our current society is not only naive, but will not cut it at all. And then there’s still the matter of them facing trail.
Rather, the important bold fact is that Mexican society has steadily and for many decades been coexisting with that, that is not legal, featuring mainly the organised crime. Coexistence is now as much as that of a happily married couple. And it has fallen into this due to the harsh social inequalities brought about by the so called market-driven economy based on consumers – many of which earn below a dollar a day and are thus not consumers – and a government that has intentionally ignored addressing the structural problems our society has been carrying along after the Industrial Revolution, in the Porfirio Diaz administration and the now abandoned and forgotten Mexican Revolution ideals. In coexistence, the word corruption is no longer the issue; the word becomes part of an administration system. The system works having been corrupted from within. The issue is who does the system work for. Well, it has not being doing so for the People, clearly.
But all of this is in turn the product of at least a three-decade abandonment of the State on the most basic of its roles, that is providing health, education and safety to its citizens, in favour of politically biased models that offer aid in exchange of votes but create nothing real for a society to evolve, improve and in any event be able to compete globally. This includes neglecting key industrial development areas, technology transfer and country developed technology, to a point that only a few private industrial conglomerates are still standing as they accessed international markets. Everything else in our country has been sold out or done way with. The local market is becoming an euphemism and local consumers are less everyday. Exactly the opposite of the development model that has made Brasil what it is today. Have at look at our growth per capita figures in the last decades, if not.
On the security issues of states like Michoacan, one can go on listening to much more elaborate theories spoken by citizens in Cheran and outside, including things such as Chinese firms involved in tree felling and for that, many in a whole lot of natural resources being exported back to China. China has invested vastly in the North West of Mexico (Baja California), as well as in the South East (regional commercial hub for their imports being built in Quintana Roo), or about Canadian mining highly present interests in Mexico expanding into forest commercial exploitation and their private security forces and drug cartels clashing, and so on. Some people I’ve spoken with even see these events as a series of soft blows trying to split Mexico in two.
With such a complex set of stories, none of which can be relied on, it really boils down to what you and I can do as citizens, really, to better society that is closest to us. I think this starts by caring for those involved, particularly the children. The reason for participating in the Peace Camp was that. But it can also be that we stumble upon and recognise social models of community organisation that are having a positive impact in their quality of life, where accountability and responsibility are not only present but part of an ethics code spanning centuries, where available resources are being used better than ever and not funnelled to someone’s pocket in kickbacks and, finally where healing as a society is taking place in the hearts of citizens and children. I found this was all being brought about in Cheran’s communal model. And thus, it is something that I, as a writer, need to tell about to you.
It is this environment that we were called to be part of and had the pleasure of bringing the camp activities to create a space of peace through art, for their children. It is this what we heard the K’eri talk about, culture, education, sports and a town that works for all.
The people of Cheran opened their arms to embrace us all and show us how they care for their generations to come. The entries following this one will cover my own impressions of their model, results and what they say about it, as I lived there for several weeks and interviewed many citizens.
Cheran Back to the Commons: their answer to politically ineffective nonsense and corruption by Juan Ayza M. text and photos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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