|What would happen if a community rebelled against organized crime?|
Translated by Valor for Borderland Beat
In January 2014, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, a conflict known as the rising up of the autodefensas breaks out. Citizens, farmers, and civil professionals tired of the abuses from drug traffickers and the obvious complicity of government structures, decide to take up arms and form a community police in order to address the problem directly. A group of them decided to move towards the coast, but they are not alone, they are accompanied by two independent journalists, Rafael Prime (México) and Nicolás Tapia (Chile). Everything that happened during those turbulent days were recorded on their cameras and now they take form in “Recuperando el Paraíso”, a documentary that seeks independent support through crowd funding in order to finalize their project.
El Ciudadano spoke with Rafael and Nicolás, who gave them more details about this incredible story.
Where did the idea of making this documentary come from?
Nicolás: It actually all happened a bit by chance. We met covering the protests of the teachers in the Federal District (Capital of Mexico) in 2013, trying to prevent a photographer colleague from being taken away by the police, we didn’t manage to avoid his arrest, but that event led us to know each other and establish a relationship of mutual trust. From there, I started to participate more actively in the movement of the free media in Mexico, that’s what they call the community press here, and when the armed uprising of the autodefensas in Michoacán broke out, Rafael and I didn’t think much of it and we headed towards the conflict zone in order to cover the conflict from a community perspective.
Rafael: Yeah, truth is, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, I already knew of similar experiences of armed uprisings against the narcos and the political parties, I am referring to Cherán, but not on the scale of what was happening at that time in Michoacán. In order to tell this story, we have to start from a premise, Mexico is tough and the media is silent, or they are silenced by lead. Drug trafficking has long since ceased to devote itself exclusively to the drug trade. Over the years, the economic and firepower that the drug cartels have accumulated is alarming, a power that not only puts the people at its feet, but also the political class throughout the country. In Chile, it’s the ruthless businesspeople that finance the political parties, but in Mexico, it’s the narco; this translates into the constant slaughter of the people that goes completely unpunished.
Nicolás: That’s why we headed towards Michoacán, because we knew that something was up but the press didn’t make clear about what was going on. As free media we said: well, it’s a chance to break the information blockade, we can’t just let the primary media cover what is happening there. We were joined by two comrades, we borrowed a car, a phone number of another colleague to receive us over there and we left.
Rafael: Well, the only thing we knew was that we didn’t want to put the cameras where those of Televisa and TV Azteca were, we wanted to get our stories, our own characters, that’s how we managed to contact a group who were exiled by the narco from the community of Santa María Ostula, who were clandestinely in the region of the sierra asking for support from the other communities in order to liberate the coast, the whole area where the Nahua indigenous communities live. They trusted us and let us join their uprising along the coast. Once we arrived, the testimonies we started collecting were heartbreaking.
Nicolás: Michoacán is a fertile land, for generations, its people have dedicated themselves to agriculture because nature is bountiful there, but gradually, the criminals began to look to these lucrative businesses and applied extortions against the producers of avocado, blackberry, lemons, strawberries, papaya, and mango. In practice, this means that the “Caballeros Templarios” require a payment from the farmers for the sole fact of working, and as if that weren’t enough, they also controlled the sale price. They forced them to sell the produce to themselves, to the criminals who were extorting the producers, who ultimately are responsible for exporting it abroad, mainly to the US market, all before the passive complicity of the government, the police and the military.
Rafael: The clear extortion begins with “the quotas” for those who work the land, but then they are followed by the rapes and beheadings for any trifle. On the coast of Michoacán, it was common to be recruited by force to be illegal loggers, people who would take out the “sangualica”, a type of very thin wood that is abundant in the land of the Nahua communities. The indigenous communities saw how their forests were disappearing at the hands of organized crime, which used the machines of the municipality to transport timber to the port of Lázaro Cárdenas where it was to be sent to China even though it is illegal to transport the “sangualica” because it is in danger of extinction.
Ostula: The Power of the People
How is this involved in the struggle of Santa María Ostula?
Nicolás: The community of Santa María Ostula was the main area affected with the looting of its natural resources, exactly with who we made contact to reach the area. This is how we were becoming more involved with them, and during the nights of vigilance, we learned that we weren’t participating in the first armed uprising in the area. In 2009, they had formed their community police to recover lands that were being used by organized crime for their clandestine operations. Throughout a short period of time, they were able to expel the drug traffickers from the area and founded a new town, Xayakalan, but the response was brutal. 32 people were killed during 2010 and many others had to flee for their lives.
Rafael: It was precisely with them who we were sharing those days with, those who had fled but now they were taking advantage of the uprising of the autodefensas in order to return to their community from the hands of the drug traffickers. That’s when we decided that we couldn’t just stay in a coverage that we were doing, we had to tell the whole story, we had to make a documentary about Ostula.
How did you continue to develop the production of the documentary? Have you returned to the area?
Nicolás: When we ran out of money, we had to return to Mexico City. But we the adrenaline from the experience did not go down, so we started to collect information about what happened in Ostula in 2009. Because of these life’s coincidences, José Arteaga, who was friends with both of us, and who had also participated with us in the coverage of the teacher’s protests, he had already been in the coast during those years; he had recorded the founding of Xayakalan and knew its history by heart.
Rafael: Yeah, so to speak, we made the perfect combination-hahaha.
Nicolás: Yeah, Rafael and I both had very good material, but the story was not complete without what José had recorded five years ago. From there on, we had a fall-back plan. We organized three or four more trips to the area, we initiated a direct relationship with the community and its assembly, which accepted our proposal and gave us the green light to carry out the documentary.
Why a crowd funding campaign?
Rafael: As we mentioned earlier, Mexico’s tough. There are plenty of abuses and violations towards the communities. But at the same time, there are many worthy struggles for survival and that are constantly invisible and denied by the mainstream media. We want to make a documentary that brings to light at least one of these struggles; we are doing this independently because the mainstream media and the film industry are complicit in this silence. Getting financed within the Mexican audiovisual industry or with government programs does not seem right because at the end of the day, they are linked to those in power that control drug trafficking, the film industry has always been very accommodating with the Mexican political system.
Nicolás: That’s why we decided to start a crowd funding campaign for Recuperando el Paraíso, we believe that it is the most coherent and respectful to the history that the community of Ostula has lived through. We started all of this independently and want to end the same way, we don’t want money stained with the blood of Mexicans.
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