Once-des­per­ate Mex­i­can town cures cor­rup­tion

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

CHERAN, Mex­ico — Check­points staffed by men with as­sault ri­fles, cam­ou­flage and body ar­mor greet vis­i­tors at the three ma­jor en­trances to this town.

The guards are not sol­diers, po­lice of­fi­cers, drug en­forcers or vig­i­lantes. They are mem­bers of home­grown pa­trols that have helped keep Cheran a bas­tion of tran­quil­ity within one of Mex­ico’s most vi­o­lent re­gions.

The town of 20,000 sits in the north­west cor­ner of Mi­choa­can, a state where au­thor­i­ties say at least 599 peo­ple were killed be­tween Jan­uary and May, an in­crease of al­most 40 per­cent com­pared with the same pe­riod last year. Cheran hasn’t had a slay­ing or other se­ri­ous crime since early 2011.

That was the year that res­i­dents, most of them indige­nous and poor, waged an in­sur­rec­tion and de­clared self-rule in hopes of rid­ding them­selves of the ills that plague so much of Mex­ico: rag­ing vi­o­lence, cor­rupt politi­cians, a tooth­less jus­tice sys­tem and gangs that have ex­panded from drug smug­gling to ex­tor­tion, kid­nap­ping and il­le­gal log­ging.

Six years in, against all odds, Cheran’s ex­per­i­ment ap­pears to be work­ing.

“We couldn’t trust the au­thor­i­ties or po­lice any­more,” said Jose­fina Estrada, a pe­tite grand­mother who is among the women who spear­headed the re­volt. “We didn’t feel that they pro­tected us or helped us. We saw them as ac­com­plices with the crim­i­nals.”

In­deed, the crim­i­nal syn­di­cates that have long dom­i­nated Mi­choa­can are part of the rea­son, along with ram­pant poverty, that Cheran and other ru­ral ar­eas in the state have sent so many im­mi­grants to the U.S.

Cheran’s scourge were the ta­la­m­ontes, il­le­gal log­gers who worked at the be­hest of larger mafias and raided the com­mu­nal forests that are vi­tal to its econ­omy and cul­ture.

The tim­ber thieves would pa­rade through town on hulk­ing trucks, fer­ry­ing il­le­gal loads of pine, bran­dish­ing weapons and threat­en­ing any­one re­sist­ing.

Rafael Gar­cia Avila re­sisted. He be­longed to a town com­mit­tee that mon­i­tored for­est use and had taken a stand against il­le­gal log­ging. He and a col­league were kid­napped by gun­men on Feb. 11, 2011, and never seen again, join­ing the mul­ti­tudes of “dis­ap­peared” who have van­ished dur­ing Mex­ico’s war on drugs.

“My hus­band loved the forests, the woods, the nat­u­ral world,” re­called his widow, Maria Juarez Gon­za­lez, tears welling in her eyes.

The dis­ap­pear­ances — along with other killings, as­saults and the plun­der of the town’s an­ces­tral forests — be­came un­bear­able in a com­mu­nity whose res­i­dents re­tain their iden­tity as Purepecha In­di­ans, one of the few indige­nous groups in the area that did not suc­cumb to the Aztec em­pire.

“The ta­la­m­ontes would drive by in their trucks, laugh­ing at us,” re­called Estrada, a mother of eight — six of them liv­ing in the United States — who sells health shakes from a small store­front. “It wasn’t safe to be out at night. It wasn’t safe to be in the for­est . . . Some­times I went home and cried and cried.”

Fi­nally, she called some other women and de­cided to strike back.

On April 15, 2011, be­fore dawn, the peo­ple of Cheran sounded the bells at the Ro­man Catholic Chapel of the Cal­vary and set off home­made fire­works to sum­mon help. Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shov­els and rocks.

Then they struck, seiz­ing the first tim­ber truck of the day, drag­ging out its two crew mem­bers and tak­ing them hostage. Lack­ing rope, they tied up their pris­on­ers with re­bo­zos, or shawls.

As more peo­ple re­sponded, an ini­tial crowd of about 30 swelled to more than 200

Res­i­dents dug ditches and placed tim­ber bar­ri­cades to block en­try to the town. As the sun went down, the peo­ple of Cheran set tires ablaze and lighted camp­fires to en­sure no one would pass.

Even­tu­ally, they took five log­gers hostage and torched seven of their trucks.

The gangs re­treated and hostages were re­turned.

But the re­volt lived on. Known sim­ply as the “upris­ing,” it en­tered the lore of vi­o­lence-plagued Mi­choa­can state, where gang­ster ex­ploits in re­cent years in­clude rolling five hu­man heads onto a dance floor.

The towns­peo­ple grasped an es­sen­tial fact: The ta­la­m­ontes were part of a larger crim­i­nal net­work that con­trolled drug traf­fick­ing and worked hand-in-hand with politi­cians and po­lice.

“To de­fend our­selves, we had to change the whole sys­tem — out with the po­lit­i­cal par­ties, out with City Hall, out with the po­lice and ev­ery­thing,” said Pe­dro Chavez, a teacher and com­mu­nity leader. “We had to or­ga­nize our own way of liv­ing to sur­vive.”

They de­cided to tar­get the nexus be­tween crime and pol­i­tics that has haunted Mex­ico and do away with the po­lice, the mayor, the po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The town re­cruited out­side le­gal ex­per­tise to ex­ploit pro­vi­sions of Mex­i­can law that al­low com­mu­ni­ties with indige­nous ma­jori­ties to set up a form of self-govern­ment, in­cor­po­rat­ing tra­di­tional “uses and cus­toms” into their rule.

The po­lit­i­cal par­ties and their pa­trons re­sisted the rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. The case even­tu­ally made its way to Mex­ico’s Supreme Court.

Fi­nally, in 2014 Cheran’s sys­tem of self-govern­ment was de­clared le­gal. The town re­mains part of Mex­ico but runs its own show.

On the sur­face, Cheran seems no dif­fer­ent from other places in ru­ral Mex­ico.

Stands set up in the colo­nial-era cen­tral square hawk food­stuffs, cheap cloth­ing and other items. Each af­ter­noon, res­i­dents gather to en­joy an ice cream, sip a juice drink and share gos­sip and small talk, of­ten about loved ones and neigh­bors now in the U.S.

But some­thing is miss­ing: There is no sign of the po­lit­i­cal slo­gans and em­blems that are ubiq­ui­tous in much of the coun­try.

Elec­tion­eer­ing is for­bid­den in­side the town lim­its, as are po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Even mo­torists en­ter­ing Cheran are obliged to re­move or cover up party bumper stick­ers.

Res­i­dents can cast bal­lots in state and na­tional elec­tions, but they must do so at spe­cial booths set up in nearby towns.

In­stead of the tra­di­tional mayor and city coun­cil, each of the town’s four bar­rios is gov­erned by its own lo­cal as­sem­bly, whose mem­bers are cho­sen by con­sen­sus from 172 block com­mit­tees known as fo­gatas — af­ter the camp­fires that came to sym­bol­ize the 2011 re­bel­lion.

Each as­sem­bly also sends three rep­re­sen­ta­tives — in­clud­ing at least one woman — to serve on a 12-mem­ber town coun­cil.

The town re­ceives all the funds — the equiv­a­lent of about $2.6 mil­lion per year, of­fi­cials say — that are its due from the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments. Salar­ies of 200 or so town em­ploy­ees max out at the equiv­a­lent of roughly $450 a month, leav­ing money to help fund the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sys­tem and other ser­vices, in­clud­ing a trash re­cy­cling pro­gram that is a rar­ity in Mex­ico.

The armed guards at the town en­trances are part of a lo­cally se­lected po­lice force of 120 or so, known as la ronda co­mu­ni­taria. No one en­ters or leaves with­out in­spec­tion.

Cheran was ahead of the curve in the so-called auto de­fensa move­ment, which saw many Mex­i­can towns, es­pe­cially in crime-rid­den Mi­choa­can state, set up lo­cal mili­tias start­ing in 2013 as a re­sponse to gang-re­lated vi­o­lence. But other lo­cal mili­tias have of­ten turned to the dark side, in­te­grat­ing into ex­ist­ing crim­i­nal rings or form­ing new ones, or have sim­ply dis­banded with time. In Cheran, the com­mu­nity po­lice force has stuck and be­come an in­te­gral part of the town’s se­cu­rity.

With­out any ma­jor crime in Cheran, lo­cal of­fi­cials han­dle mi­nor of­fenses such as theft, drunken driv­ing and dis­or­derly con­duct, typ­i­cally im­pos­ing sen­tences of com­mu­nity ser­vice.

Spe­cial­ized squads also pa­trol the forests.

“These forests are our essence, they were left to us by our fore­fa­thers for pro­tec­tion and nur­tur­ing,” said Fran­cisco Huaroco, 41, a mem­ber of the pa­trol, as he and a team trekked past stumps that at­test to for­mer ran­sack­ing. “With­out these woods, our com­mu­nity is not whole, is not it­self.”

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