The indigenous town of Cherán used to be like many places in Mexico, caving under the weight of drug-related crime and a police force that did little to stop it.
But about two years ago, citizens here threw out the police, and took over their local government, running the town according to indigenous tradition. So far, they’ve had remarkable success.
Indigenous autonomy movements, like the one in Cherán, are a trend throughout Latin America, scholars say, from movements like the Zapatistas in Chiapas in the 1990s; to communities seeking to self-govern today in places like Chile and Bolivia.
The response from national governments can vary wildly, says Shannon Speed, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Cherán has been in part so successful because of the particular context in which it happened, one in which government doesn’t have much control to begin with. So it’s pretty happy to say, ‘Sure, go govern yourself,’” says Ms. Speed, who specializes in indigenous issues, human rights, and the law.
As Mexico's drug violence progresses, and more citizen self-defense groups spring up, what makes Cherán unique is its focus on a formal system of indigenous autonomy, rather than vigilante justice, and the fragile peace that persists.
'No one paid any attention'
Tucked into the hills of Michoacán state, the small town of Cherán is surrounded by a mix of dense forests, golden swathes of cornfields, and gentle streams. The Purépecha indigenous people have lived in this area for centuries, relying on a mix of subsistence farming and selective timber harvesting.
“These forests are our inheritance,” says Trinidad Ramirez, a local leader. “Our grandparents taught us how to live with the forest, to live together inside the forest, connected to it."
But eventually national political parties gained influence in the village, and five years ago, so did illegal loggers with ties to drug mafias. Villagers started disappearing, and some even turned up dead. Mr. Ramirez says the atmosphere in the town completely shifted.
“We hardened towards each other. We started to think that if something bad happened to someone from another political party, that they deserved it," he says. “A lot of things got out of hand."
Ramirez says a total of about fifty thousand acres of forest were illegally cut between 2008 and 2011. Each day, around 250 logging trucks loaded with the community's timber rumbled out of town.
That is, until April 2011, when a group of local women pushed villagers into action.
“I’m a housewife – before all this, I used to collect firewood, and sell porridge, tortillas, and bread,” says Josefina Estrada de las Casas, one of the women who helped mobilize Cherán. “No one paid any attention to us.”
But Ms. Estrada de las Casas and other women in her neighborhood decided they were sick of loggers rolling down their cobblestone streets, often tossing insults and beer bottles out truck windows, so they came up with a simple plan.
The next morning at dawn, they gathered their husbands and other villagers, and armed with rocks, sticks, and a few machetes, they managed to detain four loggers, along with their vehicles.
Eventually, the police intervened, but on behalf of the loggers. So the townspeople threw everyone out: loggers, police, and politicians, too.
“That was the day we decided to return to our own history,” Ramirez says.
The townspeople closed the roads into town, kept vigil around bonfires, and started dreaming up their own system of government, based on Purépecha traditions. They appointed a twelve member indigenous council – of which both Ramirez and Estrada de las Casas are now part – and eventually won recognition from the Mexican state.
As violence increases in Mexico, vigilante groups are increasingly cropping up across the country, and raising eyebrows. Several such groups, often consisting of masked community members setting up checkpoints and detaining those they consider to be suspicious or breaking the law, have arisen in southern and western Mexico over recent months. Mexico's Human Rights Commission recently released a statement expressing concern, stating, "There's no rationale for a group of people taking justice into their own hands and going above the law."
In Cherán, however, indigenous tradition and autonomy is the law. About six months after villagers threw out the police, the Mexican state granted the town a degree of legal autonomy to govern itself on the local level, according to indigenous tradition.
'Why I'm here'
At a checkpoint on the edge of Cherán, four members of the indigenous guard keep watch. They’re dressed in black cargo pants tucked into heavy boots, and black t-shirts, rifles slung casually across their chests. At first, the only approaching car is a sedan owned by a local baker, who opens the trunk and passes out bright pink churros covered in sugar. For a moment, the scene is almost festive. But when other cars begin to approach the gate, the guards stash the pastries inside a cinderblock hut and move to their posts.
Santiago Rodriguez is 18 years old, and has been working here for almost two years. As vehicles pass through the checkpoint, he describes each one into a walkie-talkie. Guards at other checkpoints will watch to make sure each vehicle goes where it says it plans to, and search any cars that Mr. Rodriguez flags.
“Take that one, the Chevy, the gray one,” he says quietly. “It’s really new, and the guy driving it looks suspicious. Looks like he has a lot more money than most people here.” He checks the backseat, and when the car drives off, radios instructions to open the trunk at the next stop.
Rodriguez adds that illegal loggers still pass through sometimes, and that they can be confrontational, but says kidnappings and attacks are mostly a thing of the past.
Still, many members of the indigenous guard prefer not to give names. But at the idea of being anonymous, Rodriguez lifts his chin and scowls, his eyes still on the line of approaching cars. He says he wants to be identified, with his name.
“If someone wants to come and get me, fine,” he says. “What they were doing almost destroyed Cherán. And that’s why I’m here.”
– This story was written in collaboration with reporter Isabella Cota and Round Earth Media's Mexico Reporting Project.