CHERAN, Mexico — Masked and wielding rifles, the men of this mountain town stand guard at blockades of tires and sandbags to stop illegal loggers backed by drug traffickers. Their defiance isn’t just about defending their way of life; it’s one of the first major challenges to the reign of terror unleashed by Mexico’s drug cartels.
The indigenous Purepecha people of this town surrounded by mountains of pine forests and neat farmland took security into their own hands last month after loggers, who residents say are backed by cartel henchmen and local police, killed two residents and wounded several others.
“There is no fear here,” said one young man, defiantly peering out between a red handkerchief pulled up to his dark eyes and a camouflage baseball cap riding low over his brow. “Here we are fighting a David-and-Goliath battle because we are standing up to organized crime, which is no small adversary.”
Nearly all residents in the town of 16,000 in the southwestern state of Michoacan spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
Such revolts have occurred frequently in indigenous communities in Mexico where locals have demanded more autonomy, accusing the government of neglect and corruption. Since the Zapatista rebellion of the 1990s, many towns in Chiapas remain near-autonomous entities with their own security rules.
The Cheran rebellion is one of the few examples of a town standing up to drug cartels since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime in late 2006, sparking a national wave of violence that has killed at least 35,000 people. Most Mexicans are too frightened to openly fight back against gangs that have terrorized the country with beheadings and massacres. Some towns in northern Mexico have emptied as cartels move in.
The rebellion in Cheran caught the attention of the federal government, which deployed troops and federal police last week to patrol the outskirts of the town.
Illegal loggers have for years cut down thousands of acres (hectares) of trees that the Purepecha depend on for log cabins, traditional medicine and resin collection. Less than two years ago, the loggers started showing up with caravans of armed men that the townspeople believe belong to La Familia, a drug cartel based in Michoacan.
“La Familia has the heaviest presence in the zone. Everything indicates that it’s them because they have the biggest presence, but we can’t say for sure,” said David Pena, a lawyer who has been representing the community in negotiations for protection with the federal government.
Disputes over communal woods — between those who want to log indiscriminately and those who subsist on forest products — has long been a source of conflict in southwestern Mexico. The federal government has stepped up efforts against deforestation, conducting raids and shutting down illegal sawmills.
But rogue loggers have become more violent as they align themselves with drug cartels, said Rupert Knox, a Mexico researcher at London-based Amnesty International, which has investigated the crisis in Cheran.
Illegal logging has gone hand-in-glove with criminal gangs. They have moved into that sphere and controlled it with extreme brutality and corruption of local officials,” Knox said.
The animosity came to a head in Cheran when residents captured five illegal loggers on April 15 as their truck attempted to smuggle out illegally harvested wood.
Two hours later, a convoy of armed men rumbled into the town to free the detained loggers, accompanied by local police, according to Pena and Amnesty International. One Cheran man was shot in the head and remains in a coma. But the townspeople, through force of numbers, managed to drive out the gunmen.
In apparent reprisal, loggers shot and killed two Cheran men and wounded four others who were patrolling the woods on April 27.
Angry Cheran residents stormed the local police headquarters, seizing 18 guns. They swiftly barricaded the town, piling sandbags and tires beneath plastic tents at several checkpoints along the main road. Young men with rifles keep track of residents venturing out and question anyone trying to get in.
“We want peace and security,” reads a banner hanging over a pile of logs at one blockade.
Classes have been suspended at the town’s more than 20 schools, which draws students from neighboring communities because both Spanish and the Purepecha language are taught. Instead, young boys hang out at the barricades, covering their faces with handkerchiefs and pretending to patrol with plastic toy guns.
“Everything is paralyzed out of fear that this gang might attack the children,” said a soft-spoken man wearing a white bandanna and a black wool cap at a checkpoint.
The municipal police dissolved itself. Mayor Roberto Bautista Chapina reported the guns stolen but has otherwise stayed out of the dispute, trying not to inflame tensions. He said the Cheran men attacked the police chief and grabbed his gun.
Community leaders and Interior Department representatives met Tuesday in the state capital of Morelia and agreed on a long-term security plan, Pena said. The government promised to set up two bases outside the town for army troops and federal and state police, who will patrol the hills and forests and meet weekly with Cheran leaders. Residents will be allowed to keep protecting the town on their own.
The illegal logging has affected 80 percent of Cheran’s 44,500 acres (18,000 hectares) of forest, Pena said. In some places, that means patches of trees have been cut down; in others, whole woods have disappeared.
Already, Cheran had struggled to maintain its way of life. More than 40 percent of its residents have immigrated to the United States over the years, according to the government. Remittances have replaced farming and resin sales as Cheran’s main source of income.
Still, customs are fiercely guarded. Many people live in log cabins topped by red-tiled roofs. The women maintain the traditional dress of a wrapped cotton skirt and brightly colored satin blouse.
Cheran’s men say the barricades won’t come down until they overcome this latest threat to their traditions.
“This fight is not for a month or a year. It’s for life,” said the soft-spoken man in the white bandanna. “We don’t believe there will be a quick solution.”
He hopes other communities will be inspired to fight back against organized crime.
“We think it’s difficult but not impossible,” he said. “If they can start with Cheran, cutting down the forests, they will continue with other communities. And if the communities don’t organize, in the end, they will destroy everything that for us is life.”