A lesson of recent Mexican history is that no fight against organized crime can succeed as long as private citizens can buy impunity from the state—or simply to impose it if they have the will and the strength. It’s an old story: No peace without justice. An example from a small, impoverished indigenous community in the state of Michoacán has once again made the news.
Just a year ago the indigenous Purépecha community of Cherán established a self-imposed “state of siege” to protect itself from the illegal logging—apparently protected by local municipal authorities and groups of organized crime—that was decimating the community’s forests. Over a period of at least three years loggers from outside the community had been entering its forests at night, felling large numbers of trees (some of them first-growth and held by community members to be sacred) and, over time, removing some three quarters of the community’s woodland. The community demanded federal protection of their forests—and as they became more active, protection of their own lives—but none was forthcoming. The self-imposed siege consisted largely of blocking roads of access to the community’s woodlands.
This past Wednesday, April 18, the communal council of Cherán reported that a group of 20 comuneros engaged in a project of reforestation were ambushed by an armed group, leaving two dead and two others seriously wounded. At the same time, six residents of the nearby community of El Cerecito were killed under circumstances still unreported. The area is desperately poor, and men from El Cerecito had been recruited to participate in the illegal logging.
Members of Cherán’s communal council interviewed by the news media blamed the deaths on “organized crime and loggers who act in complicity with governments and political parties, which is the only way to explain why they (the authorities) have done nothing to stop [these attacks].”
They also told reporters, “the information given out by the state attorney general with respect to an armed conflict between the neighboring communities of Chéran and El Cerecito was false.” There was no such conflict they insisted but “an ambush by paramilitary groups associated with organized crime and the (illegal) loggers  who operate in the area, in which two residents of Cherán were killed and two more wounded.”
Comunero Salvador Campanur, who had accompanied peace activist Javier Sicilia in his “dialogue” last year with President Felipe Calderón, said simply, “they are sowing death in our territory. We don’t know the reason for the six deaths the Attorney General is reporting in El Cerecito, or the manner in which they were killed. Here there are internal conflicts among organized crime and the paramilitaries and what the authorities are doing is to make it appear that those deaths were part of a confrontation that never happened. They want to blame us for something we didn’t do.”
The conflict, involving the villagers’ right to stop rapacious logging on communal lands, led them to impose the state of siege and to establish an autonomous communal council to press their demands for protection. They confronted the loggers who, they say, with the complicity of the government, razed the forest with nobody trying to stop them. The physical confrontation began on April 15, 2011 when the loggers reached the water of the spring that supplies the community.
Now, in the wake of Wednesday’s attack, they are intensifying their protests , demanding that state and local authorities offer them protection from loggers and paramilitaries. Early Wednesday morning they seized 15 local functionaries and held them for 24 hours to pressure the state government to act. They have also called for the intervention of Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH) and of the Attorney General of the Republic.
The community, said Campanur, “feels pain for the dead and wounded and for their families. We transform this pain into demands, resistance, conscience and actions to defend ourselves, because we want to live.”
The continuing issue here is impunity. In this case it is a situation in which private logging companies have apparently bought the protection they need to do whatever they feel like doing and take whatever they feel like taking.
For more from Fred Rosen's blog, "Mexico, Bewildered and Contested," visit nacla.org/blog/mexico-bewildered-contested . See also the July 2011 photo essay by Clayton Conn, "Cherán: Community Self Defense in Mexico’s Drug War ."