In Mexico, P’urhépecha indigenous community patrols defend their people’s right to life

The municipality of Los Reyes in Michoacán is located in the far western region of the state, and serves as a bridge between the p´urhépecha region and the region known as Tierra Caliente. During the first 6 months of 2013 it became a region designated as of “high risk” in terms of safety for its inhabitants and travelers, because of attempts by the drug cartel known as “Los Caballeros Templarios” (The Knights Templar) to expand their presence and control there. This  followed their retreat from the near municipalities of Buenavista Tomatlán, Tepalcatepec y Coalcomán, among others, where locally based self-defense groups have emerged. A similar, but less well-defined situation prevails also in Aquila y Aguililla. Throughout Michoacán the situation is very unstable and for that reason it has to be followed carefully and updated regularly.

P'urépecha communities of Los Reyes decided to defend themselves from organized crime

P’urépecha communities of Los Reyes decided to defend themselves from organized crime

In Los Reyes this situation has become more critical and several communities have drawn upon indigenous traditions regarding the defense and protection of their population and territory. This has also included the need to reinvigorate the implementation of alternative systems and structures of justice grounded in P´urhépecha traditions and customs. By the end of January 2013 an offensive by the most active sectors of organized crime intensified their efforts to secure control of this region rich in avocado production, as a way to recover profits lost in the drug trade due to their displacement from other communities in the same region.

Suddenly Los Caballeros Templarios came to several communities —among them, those known as 18 de Marzo, Uruscato, Cheratillo y Cherato— with envelopes stamped with their logo containing key facts profiling each comunal landholder in the region, emphasizing that they possessed a census of the local population and data of their productivity. Based on this, they had determined that each comunero should pay $2000 pesos for each hectare under production, and they said this was not a request but a demand that had to be obeyed. This is how a cartel that claims in its “bylaws” that it will look out for the well-being of the people of Michoacán, ended up demanding payment of “taxes” by campesinos who find themselves in a complex economic situation characterized by declining levels of production and income, and confronting the compulsion of weapons pointed in their direction.

Fearing reprisals, the inhabitants must protect their identity

Fearing reprisals, the inhabitants must protect their identity

This description of how the Templarios established  their control is drawn from Dr. José Manuel Mireles’s analysis. In an interview, he affirmed that the way in which those positioned themselves in Tepalcatepec and in the region of Tierra Caliente, begins with a sweep of the “bastion” that is at issue, by engaging in combat with other armed groups competing for control, and then is consolidated through the exaction of fees from its inhabitants. This includes fees for each kilo of meat and each head of cattle sold, for each square meter occupied by houses, and in sum, for each resident´s very existence. This process begins with “lesser” fees, and then, as the population becomes more submissive, the increases in the fees multiply, and begin to erode the local economy until it is destroyed. This also includes the subjugation of each family, whose members are soon forced to work for organized crime as the price of being able to work at all, and eventually to breathe.

IMG_1929The organizational dynamic that is underway in the P’urépecha communities of Los Reyes is an effort to put a brake on this process. The initial response to the presence of the men with the branded envelopes, is a regional assembly where the decision is taken to resist the fees that had been imposed and where the authority of the Caballeros Templarios to demand such payments or any other such exactions is rejected. The essential argument is very simple: it costs too much to make a living to let anyone come from the outside and take it away. Following this community-based decision-making process, a negative response is formulated for the cartel and a march is undertaken to the municipality´s seat of government, in Los Reyes, in order to demand action by its authorities, and a halt to the overall situation which exceeds the bounds of any conceivable notion of the rule of law.

The municipal authorities, including its Mayor, José Antonio Salas Valencia of the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party), not only have failed to act in conformity with their responsibilities as public officials to, among other things, maintain the security of the community´s inhabitants. They also threaten the comuneros with reprisals if they don´t return to their communities of origin. The overall landscape becomes more clearly defined, and it is no longer posible to continue denying the complicity existent between sectors of the municipal government and the Caballeros Templarios. There is a strong feeling in the community that there is a close relationship between them which includes shared interests and operative mechanisms.IMG_2049

The people of the P’urhépecha communities are angry and indignant, and begin to organize to resolve the difficult situation which confronts them through the structures which years of resistance have solidified as a legacy.

On March 22d 2013 one of the principal promoters of the resistance to paying the fees imposed by the cartel, Roberto Serrano Cervantes, of the community of Cherato, disappears on his way to the seat of government and nothing more is known about his whereabouts or destiny. As the comuneros themselves insist, and his family members, in the video which accompanies this article, what they all demand is simply justice, and that the requisite investigations be made so that those responsible can be punished.  It is just too much of a coincidence that one of those responsible for issues of security and justice in the community of Cherato, a hard working comunero who dared to say no to Los Caballeros Templarios and who also argued in favor of such resistance to other members of the community, disappears amid an atmosphere that is weighed down by the repressive attitude of the municipal authorities.

The “rondas comunitarias” (community patrols) emerge in this context, and are organized to protect people living in these communities who fear the same kind of treatment that was meted out to Don Roberto. They install barricades at the key entry and exit points of these communities, organize rotating 24 hour shifts of guards, and undertake patrols throughout the municipality´s territories, in a renewed expression of a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. A new form of life surges forth out of disgrace and anger, but above all out of the awareness that organized crime also rules within the structures of local government.

These efforts arise within a much broader and deeper framework focused on reflections and actions for the reconstruction of the community´s social web, and on the need to demand the necessary conditions to achieve a dignified life, and to struggle for them. This is a time to defend the universal right to life and all of the implications it has, and not simply of a confrontation with the authorities, as the state government of Michoacán insists in a pathetic media campaign. The decision to reclaim the thread of the tradition of community patrols ended up being a necessary step in the face of the desperate situation these communities were facing, against their complete oblivion, misery, and violence. All this has been exacerbated by the abandonment reflected in the community´s social conditions characterized by lack of access to basic levels of education, health, water and widespread unemployment.

This text is accompanied by the first video, with the first interview to Dr. Mireles that SubVersiones did on june 2013. Click the CC botton to activate english subtitles.

See also «Autodefensa ciudadana en Michoacán» and «Comunidades indígenas p’urhépechas de Michoacán organizadas contra la delincuencia y el olvido gubernamental», part 1 and part 2, turned in Los Reyes but unfortunately not wet translated.