Proceso. 7-21-2012. San Francisco Cheran, Mich. Armed communal police go into the stripped and devastated woods. A group of them is already at the top, protecting the rest. Any incursion into the woods is dangerous these days. This is shown by the landscape of gutted hills, with barely one last rank of tree trunks that were scorched but still cling to the earth. In these places, now orphaned of the great, big trees, ancient and stout, which prevented the sun's ray from penetrating, there are shadows on the ground.
"As they advance they start fires, they cut trees down, they scare the people, sowing terror so that people will resign themselves and leave. They want to take over all the lands, they say they want to grow avocados and for us to just get used to it," explains one of the leaders of the communal patrol made up of volunteers that carry out police duties in this independent municipality, as we tour the San Miguel hill, north of the town.
The slaughter of trees is palpable a kilometer from the edge of town; this is how far the timber cutters got, led by an individual known as "El Guero" , from Rancho Rio Seco, who controls part of the Purepecha Meseta for the Knights Templar. Some sources have said his real name is Cuitlahuac Hernandez.
The forest looks like an ecocide museum after three years of voracious looting, the burning like a key note and the terror generalized, until the community had had enough; it expelled the invaders, kicked out the complicit mayor and his policemen, installed its own perimeter and reorganized itself according to its and customs and traditions.
The cost of its resistance and refusal to submit has been 15 community members assassinated and five "disappeared", as well as 13 people kidnapped in three years of confrontations and ambushes. The last two --Urbano Macias Rafael and Guadalupe Geronimo Velasquez-- were abducted in the forest by armed men on Sunday, [July] 8, and were found dead the next day.
The fight that this Purepecha community has is not with the tree cutters from nearby communities, as state government officials claim, but against drug trafficking organizations and powerful people who promote deforestation and looting of natural resources.
"They tell us we won't last long, that they're going to take our lands and that they're even going to take our cattle, that they know us, that they have us on a list, that they're going to bag us, that they'll never find our bodies," says the leader of the volunteer police. He's one of the many rural inhabitants evicted from the forest and from his small farm plot. His 12 hectares (about 30 acres) were left in areas controlled by the timber cutters. He's been prohibited from going in there.
Cheran has been in the media's spotlight since April 15, 2011, when it revolted in defense of its forests. But its battle goes farther than that. It is betting it can prevent the expansion of the business model that drug trafficking groups have introduced throughout Michoacan; as soon as they come into a community, they embed themselves in the municipalities' presidencies (mayors), from which they give orders to personnel, control commerce and subdue businesses, impose "pago de piso" (extortion) on all productive enterprises, spread the sale, trafficking, production or consumption of drugs, sponsor illegal activities and take over the roads, forests, farmlands, mineral resources and even the water.
Cheran is surrounded by communities where this has already taken place. Huitzaco, for example, is a town inhabited by dozens of "owners" of working mines who are poor because they are simply fronts for the real owners. In San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro, the businesses there are being harassed into paying for "protection." The avocado growers in Uruapan, producers of the world famous "green gold", transferred their orchards to armed men who force them into partnerships and make them sell their crops to certain packing plants.
The timber cutters of the town of Tanaco pay for trucks loaded with illegal lumber. The forests of El Cerecito are used to camouflage drug laboratories. In Paracho it is said they even control the water.
This is the face of the Mexican "ecomafia." [It is] the diversification of the businesses of cartels such as Los Zetas, Los Caballeros Templarios and La Familia Michoacana who take over territories and their natural resources.
For total controlCheran was going the same route until it decided to fight, without any help from the federal or the state government so far.
"Here, the climate, which is cold, is not good for growing avocados; that's not what they want the land for. But our lands are good for growing beautiful marijuana plants, like there are in nearby communities, or to install drug laboratories in remote areas like those found in El Cerecito. Sand and gravel quarries are tempting. Our forests will produce lumber for them. What they want is more money. They even wanted to charge the community for the water we were drawing from the deep well," explains a woman communal member, who asks that her name not be used.
In April of last year, she and other women went up the mountain with their small children to try to talk to the men who at night brought in earth moving equipment to strip the forest and by day passed in front of them with loads of cut trees. Without their husbands knowledge, they approached these men to ask them to, please, show respect for the ancient trees around the spring, because they would cause the community to go thirsty. But they were called "complaining old hags" and expelled at gunpoint.
Enraged, at dawn on the 15th (of April) they stopped the first lumber trucks that went by that day and, because the tree cutters who were blocked responded with gunshots, the people came out to defend them. Since that day the Cheran people have not lowered their guard; the town is entrenched behind sand bags, it installed its own police force to make the rounds and every inhabitant became a vigilante.
"According to informants we detained and interrogated, organized crime was charging them one thousand pesos for each three-ton load of lumber they took down and they had to sell the wood to them. At night, you could see a huge number of lights on the mountain, like hundreds of fireflies, from back hoes cutting (trees) and making roads. If anybody from the community objected, they would beat them up; people started to disappear. In one year they cut down 40,000 acres. Until they got to the spring, and then the people had had enough," narrated the woman while she used her metate (grindstone) to grind a salsa made from onions, mint, corn and green chili.
(Abstract of a special report in Proceso.)