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Cherán K'eri, Walking Steadily Towards Autonomy...

“We blocked the streets with rocks. There was no access to the town at all. We put up barricades, and built bonfires, and people brought us food during the night. But at first we hadn't formed the patrol. We rose up without arms, and only later did we arm ourselves.”
By: 
Andrea Caraballo

Cherán K'eri, Walking Steadily Towards Autonomy...

 

by Andrea Caraballo

Mexico, June 1, 2012

 

We blocked the streets with rocks. There was no access to the town at all. We put up barricades, and built bonfires, and people brought us food during the night. But at first we hadn't formed the patrol. We rose up without arms, and only later did we arm ourselves.

 

Mexico, like the majority of Central America, lives the reality of what's called the Merida Initiative, a war on drugs that in this country has left more than 50,000 dead, counting only the time period of the current president, Felipe Calderon.

It is in this context of violence, institutional corruption, and turf wars between the main drug cartels that towns like Cherán K'eri find themselves, a community of Purépecha origin whose name means “place of fear.¨

Cherán is in the state of Michoacan, located 2400 meters above sea level, in the center of the country. The climate is cold and rainy, and wood from the forests is used to cook, build houses, make a living from making traditional crafts and toys, and also is an ancestral symbol of protection, unity, and wisdom. The bonfire in Cherán is called kurik'erhi,which in Purépecha means big fire (and is a reference to their god of fire).

 

Enough is Enough: the Uprising

Early in the morning on April 15, 2011, Cherán made the news when a group of about 20 women, whose job it was to sweep one area of town every Friday, blockaded trucks from carrying illegally cut timber out of the forests around the community. These illegal loggers are part of organized crime groups in the area, and despite widespread awareness of the situation by local, state and federal authorities, their activities have led to the destruction of nearly 20,000 hectares of community forest. Along with the illegal logging of forests, these armed groups of drug traffickers have carried out acts of extortion against people in the community and murdered community members and store owners in Cherán.

 

It was really early that day. A lot of people weren't awake yet. I was one of the first people to respond to the call. I was really worried about why there were so many fireworks going off in the area where the conflict started. Here we have the custom of when something serious is happening in town, we communicate with fireworks. When the people here the sound of the fireworks, unconsciously we start counting how many we hear. If we hear more than three go off, we go out into the streets and ask what happened, what's going on, why are so many fireworks going off. That day there were an infinite number of fireworks and after that the bells started ringing. This means that something really big is happening. It's like saying:Red alert, Cherán, we're in trouble.

When they heard the fireworks and the bells, almost immediately a group of young people joined in, and then all their neighbors came out. They burned seven trucks and detained five people, and the rest managed to escape with the help of our municipal police. From that moment on we stopped recognizing the authority of the police. The majority of them weren't even from here, and really, they were working with the organized crime. The others were detained for seven days.

The barricades were organized that same day. The bonfires were lit that night. How? We don't know. It was like an instinct everyone had. I'm here on this corner and I'm going to protect my area. No one told us 'You make bonfires, you make barricades.' There were no leaders and the guards weren't organized until later. We weren't armed, we just had the patrols that we organized around the bonfires. Women, men, young people, children, we were all participating in the bonfires.

We blocked the streets with rocks. There was no access to the town at all. We put up barricades, and built bonfires, and people brought us food during the night. But at first we hadn't formed the patrol. We rose up without arms, and only later did we arm ourselves.

 

The Path to Autonomy

Many people in town say that Cherán has always fought for its autonomy, that this process is nothing new; from the Aztec conquest to the genocidal conquest of the Spanish, they have been an example of resistance in their region. The era of the Mexican Revolution brings up talk about Casimiro Leco, who many called a guerilla fighter, but who the Purépecha insist on calling a defender; they say that he's not well known because he's not talked about in any books, but through oral tradition of the people his name continues to resonate through the valleys. Around 1910, Leco formed an army of volunteers that joined him and acted on behalf of the community. They rose up to stop the intrusion of the bandits that were attacking the community. That's why the reference relates so much to Cherán today.

In this day and age, tradition has become a strategy of defense; they've lit bonfires, and they've substituted the municipal police with community patrols, which are connected to each of the three permanent barricades that guard the entrances to the town.

The people have reclaimed their usos y costumbres [traditional ways and customs], defending themselves and organizing themselves through the assembly as their main decision making body. After the assembly the next most important group is a council made up of town elders, who are the most knowledgeable, and then there are the organizing committees, made up of members of each of Cherán's four neighborhoods.

 

After that we started to have meetings every day at 6:00 in the evening, at first there in El Calvario, and after that in meeting spots in each of the four neighborhoods, and general meetings were held here in the center of town. It was really significant because we'd never seen a moment like this in our community. It took a lot of people awhile to leave their houses because they were sick with fright, from all the moments of fear they'd lived through.

We don't have leaders. We're all in this together. Any person from the patrol could answer any question you have. Everyone knows what's happened here and what continues to happen. We're here voluntarily. We have coordinators now, but we all make decisions together.

It's almost impossible to express what I felt in that moment. I felt powerless thinking that we couldn't stop them because they were armed and we had nothing, but at the same time that sense of powerlessness gave me the courage to continue. We weren't going to stand there doing nothing just because they had weapons. We didn't know what was going to happen, but fortunately I think that up to this point we've slowed down the huge number of trees they've been taking from us, and above all, we're a little more free.

We've achieved many goals. They're not cutting down trees illegally from this area anymore, although they do keep taking wood down from this mountain, from a ranch named Cerezos. But since we stopped them here, the situation has calmed down. They haven't kidnapped anyone from the town of Cherán. People can walk around more easily at night because they know that we're guarding the entrances to town. We've established our own government. We don't want to have anything to do with political parties because they divide people. Here, all the people are working together.

 

Radio Fogata

In 2011 they set up their own community radio station to be able to inform the people and communicate more directly. Its name is Radio Fogata [Bonfire Radio] and it is run mostly by youth, who have also formed the group Youth United for Cherán.

 

The name of the radio station has to do with how the community organized when the movement started on April 15, 2011. We called it Radio Fogata because of the bonfires in our community and also because fire for the Purépecha is a symbol and a way of organizing. The radio station began in a workshop for youth...mostly between 15 and 20 years old... we talked about problems of migration, the environment, women. Other groups in the community also participated, like younger children. We've invited them many times. They're really interested in this whole idea of taking care of natural resources...

One of the reasons we decided to start a radio station was to inform or communicate with people in town. When there were meetings, events, or some incident you couldn't communicate it immediately to everyone in the community. We already had a radio station here in Cherán, but it's a government station and it didn't let any real information on the air about what was happening...

Before April 15 there was a lot to say, and feel, but because of fear and everything that was going onkidnappings and shootings, etcno one wanted to rise up and say, enough, stop this. This is mine. You have no reason to be here. You don't have anything to do with the community... Yes there was a lot of desire to be able to do something, but the fear held people back until that day when the opportunity came to rise up and kick out those people that were robbing our wood, our trees.

 

NO to Political Parties

On July 1st there will be national elections that will name the next President and the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in Mexico. Each party has been campaigning heavily for months, but they can no longer enter Cherán.

Due to not believing in the government and its institutions, and the abuse of power of political parties that act in complicity with organized crime, the people of Cherán decided not only to kick government authorities and the police out of their town, but also to block all the candidates in these elections, and their campaign posters, from entering the town.

 

We're thinking about not allowing the installation of voting booths for the next national elections on July 1st, and possibly the whole town will abstain from voting. If someone wants to vote, they will have to go to another town to do it.

When they were cutting down trees here, they roamed through the whole town and we had to step off to the side because they walked around armed. That was the fear we had. We'd asked the government to put an end to the illegal logging, but like always they never do anything for the town. They only promise and promise. Up until now we've never had a solution come from the government, only from the people.

I think we began to gain autonomy from the moment we decided to confront those people. And, why don't we want municipal presidents and all of that? Because we know that they are part of those people. If we accept them, we are accepting again the continued destruction of our forests. The politicians work hand in hand with the drug traffickers.

 

Support and Solidarity

From May 24th-27th of this year, the National Meeting of Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance, organized by the Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance Network, took place to bring together actions in support of Cherán,.

Over the four days of the gathering, people shared experiences and lessons from various collectives in Mexico and other countries. Participating in the discussions were movements like FPDT from San Salvador Atenco, the community police of Guerrero, and the autonomous council of Cherán K'eri, amongst other movements, community radio stations, and collectives.

The days and nights were painted with creativity, video screenings, forums and workshops, local dances, and many conversations.

More than 500 people participated from more than 14 states in Mexico, and from movements in other countries.

 

Final Declaration of the Meeting

In these four days of dialogue and gathering, we have listened to the testimonies of resistance of the women, children, and men of the town of Cherán K'eri, we have joined together our struggles and brought our hearts closer together, and that's why from here, from this dignified Purépecha territory, at the National Meeting of Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance we reiterate our total solidarity with the heroic struggle of our compañeros, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

 

We condemn the cowardly assassinations at the hands of organized crime, in complicity with the federal and state authorities, that guarantee them impunity.

We demand that the disappeared are returned alive, and we demand unconditional respect for the autonomy of communities by the state and its institutions.

We reject the provocations of political parties of all stripes; they will no longer be able to divide a town whose people have united to defend themselves and strengthen their community.

This gathering gives its total support to the decisions made by this town that is self organized, with its own customs and culture, to defend its territory. We claim the defense of the forests and mother earth as our own struggle; it is a struggle for life and humanity.

We call on civil society, national and international, to keep watching out for attacks this community could suffer.

 

National Meeting of Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance

--

Notes:

This article was made up of a collection of thoughts, reflections, and interviews I conducted between May 24-27, 2012 in Cherán K'eri, as well as from other materials from other independent media picked up at the National Meeting of Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance.

Thank you to Carolina, María X, Elena, Cristian, Polo, Proyecto Ambulante, La Voz de Villa Radio y Radio Fogata.

Translated by Mandy Skinner

 

Radio Fogata's websites:
http://radiofogata.listen2myradio.com/
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Radio-Fogata-Cherán/123952677704145

Recommended videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKVXlpIVkU8&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4KqH7BpRd8&feature=related

National Meeting of Anticapitalist Autonomous Resistance:
http://espora.org/jra/index.php/memoria/346-convocatoria-encuentro-nacional-de-resistencias-autonomas-anticapitalistas-en-cherán-kaeri.html

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