Mexico: Indigenous Communities Defend Themselves Without the Government’s “Permission”

Gloria Muñoz Ramírez Sep 16, 2011

(Photo courtesy of Cherán and Ostula, Michoacán; and San Luis Acatlán, Guerrero. Indigenous communities in different parts of Mexico are organizing to secure their territory outside of government and all institutions, demanding the right to self-defense of their towns. And it’s not a matter of armed groups or guerillas, but rather the re-establishment of traditional policing organs, as is their right under international law.

The high amount of violence and looting, the inefficiency of institutional security organs (and their complicity in many cases with organized crime), the lack of credibility of political parties, corruption, and gluttony, are just a few of the things that forced them to take security into their own hands and organize for their own self-defense, representatives from the indigenous towns of Ostula and Cherán in Michoacán agree. The communities of La Costa and La Montaña in Guerrero agree as well.

In Ostula they are demanding the right to safeguard territories they’ve reclaimed; Cherán has revived its traditional patrols to defend itself from loggers, as well as to take care of internal security; meanwhile 65 Guerrero communities have a system for administering justice in addition to policing bodies, and, at this moment, have prioritized defending their land against regional mining projects.

With different histories—each with their own dynamics playing out in the present—one thing remains constant, and that is that in all of these places, it is the towns themselves that are charged with maintaining internal order, in accordance with their traditional normative systems.

None of these experiences, the interviewed representatives agree, have anything to do with armed groups fighting against the government. They do, however, reflect a lack of justice and of safety in their lands. In a word, they say, “they exist because the government doesn’t do its job”.

It is not an accident that the three cases presented are occurring in indigenous communities. “Mexico’s Indians are the ones offering an alternative to the country,” note comuneros of Cherán interviewed in the Casa Comunal—the same property that previously was the seat of the municipal presidency, now retaken by residents.

The Nahuas of Ostula, the P’urhépechas of Cherán and the Tlapanec, Mixtec, Nahuas, and mestizos of La Montaña and Costa Chica of Guerrero, are organizing to defend themselves not just from crime, but also from “anyone who tries to snatch up territory for themselves. These types, like the huge investors, are oftentimes more dangerous than criminals,” warns Claudio Guzmán, one of the nine coordinators of the Community Police in Guerrero.

The threat to the land in Ostula, explains the jefe de tenencia, is the construction of the Coahuayana-Lazaro Cardenas super-highway and the Regional Plan for Integral Tourist Development of the Michoacán Coast. A port, hotels, and other real estate plans are being contemplated for this region; meanwhile in Cherán it is the forests and their wealth that are in jeopardy, with illegal loggers profiting the most from them. In La Montaña in Guerrero, for its part, the land threat comes from English and Canadian mining projects.

The recent threats, abductions, and homicides that have victimized comuneros from Ostula and Cherán force them to stay anonymous. They agree to interviews and tag along during tours of their communities, but they prefer not to give their names. But members of the Community Police Force do in fact identify themselves; 16 years of history precedes them and their current situation is different.

Ostula: “No one will take us from here”

On June 29th, 2009, the Nahua from Ostula reclaimed more than a thousand hectares of land, countryside, and beaches that “have been in the hands of small property owners of La Placita for more than 40 years.” From that moment on these lands have come to be known as Xayakalan.

“We we were able to recover our land,” says Trompas, a security representative, “thanks to the fact that we all participated in reorganizing our traditional police force. Now, we are not going to leave. And for that we have our police force.”

The site of Xayakalan is visibly destroyed. A beach furnished with palm trees and coconuts underfoot, the tops of the palms torn to pieces, huge trunks lying on top of what were up until recently houses, hundreds of tamarind trees ripped up from the roots, adobe houses without roofs and with gaping holes in the walls, a kid’s garden of which literally only a stick remains, all give a picture of the passage of hurricane Beatriz which tore through this community on the Michoacán coast last June.

Two years after the territory was reclaimed, Trompas assures: “Everyone here is staying put. If the hurricane didn’t kick us out, the government is even less likely to.”

The community police force in Ostula is made up of almost 500 members and its function, Trompas and another group of comuneros explain, “is to protect the perimeter of areas in conflict”. They are not there, they insist, “to confront organized crime, disarm anyone, or intervene in other things, but rather only to tend to territory that belongs to us.”

None of the community police officers receive a salary or remuneration. They do not have a uniform or any distinguishing features. They are appointed as a collective by the general assembly, and on an individual level all volunteers are “welcome to join the group.”

The government’s response to the organization “has not been positive,” some Nahua comment underneath the shade of a palm tree in Xayakalan. “The government doesn’t want us to have our own police. They don’t like it because they don’t have control over them, but out here we’ve always been autonomous. We demand that our police be recognized, but if that day never comes, we’ll press forward anyhow,” affirms one of the representatives.

Ostula is one of the three Nahua communities in the littoral zone of Pacific Michoacán. The other two are Pómaro and Coire. Together they possess more than 200 thousand hectares of land on the coast and in the countryside of the Sierra Madre del Sur all the way to Guerrero and Oaxaca. Some 250 people from 40 families currently live in the more than one thousand hectares that make up Xayakalan. This is the territory being watched over and guarded.

The Nahua demand recognition of their lands and their organs of self-defense, and to date there has been no response. In the meantime, they continue to maintain possession of the spot and the provision of their police to defend it.

“We can count the war that our community continues to live through—which is only a small chapter of the war that rips apart the entire Nation—in numbers,” comuneros denounced on the occasion of its second anniversary. “Twenty-six dead comuneros, four disappeared, tens of widows and orphans, and hundreds displaced.” Now, they say, “the situation has calmed down.”

One other thing is that the general assembly decided not to participate in Michoacán’s state elections, slated for the next November 13th. “Political parties talk real nice when they want the job, but later on they don’t even know you. They are a waste of time and they are not allowed in here,” said the interviewees.

The Ostula assembly’s decision was communicated officially in the following terms: “The government and political parties laugh at our people, encouraging looting and exploitation of indigenous communities. And it has failed, in the case of our community, to live up to its promise to recognize the lands we reclaimed in 2009 in the Xayakalan area, as well as its promise to grant us guarantees to help run our community police.” For that reason, “installing polling stations for state elections on November 13th, 2011, in which the posts of governor, local deputies, and the local governments of the whole state of Michoacán will be renewed, is not allowed on land of the Santa María Ostula indigenous community—including the municipal center and its 22 encargaturas.”

Community Police in Guerrero, defending the land

One of the most notable autonomous experiences as far as systems of justice are concerned (apart from the Zapatista communities in Chiapas that have been carrying out one of the most advanced autonomous processes in the country in more than one thousand communities in 40 municipalities) is being spearheaded by 65 communities from Costa Chica and La Montaña in Guerrero. Almost 16 years ago, they took charge of their own security, lowering crime up to 90 percent.

At this moment, in addition to the securing these towns, the Regional Coordinator of Autonomous Authorities (CRAC) – Community Police, is implementing a special unit to mark the beginning of the fight against Canadian and English mining companies. These companies are trying to exploit gold and silver fields, among other metals, without the consent of the indigenous communities in the municipalities of San Luis Acatlán, Malinaltepec, Tlacoapa, Zaptitlán Tablas, Iliatenco and Metlatónoc.

The current battle, warns the coordinator, is against mining companies that cause “environmental destruction, poisoning, and plundering,” so “we have committed ourselves to defending the land.”

Guzmán insists that “the enemy is huge, as the mining firms are actually more dangerous than criminals.” An example of this fact is the graffiti campaign that students from the Universidad Intercultural del Sur began against mining firms. The students were intimidated, and then “they abducted a student and warned him that they would be on him from then on” the coordinator recounts. He also notes “a campaign in some parts of the media to question the way justice is being meted out,” for which “there is an open invitation to human rights organizations to observe their work.”

“Our town has already decided: we will not allow mines to be built on our land. The federal, state, and municipal government should guarantee us—and implement—our right to consultation. We have historic, preferential rights to the use and preservation of our lands and territories,” CRAC informed in a communique.

The history of the Guerrero Community Police dates back more than fifteen years. Juan González Rojas, one of its founders and its first coordinator, remembers the region as plagued with innumerable crimes, with government indifference and/or the complicity in turn. Murders, cattle theft, assaults on the street and women getting raped were all common in the area, “until the people of Santa Cruz del Rincón got tired of it and got together to see what they could do to defend themselves. That’s how the community police started.”

The government, he recalls, “didn’t like the idea, but we told them that we weren’t planning on negotiating. Rather, we were just informing them about what we were up to—after which the government gave us an ultimatum to disarm. We told them that we weren’t an armed group trying to confront them, that our group was really only meant to contribute to the population’s safety.”

It started with about ten communities, and 16 years later they number 65, each one with its own uniformed and equipped police force. Though they don’t charge even a peso for the service they render unto the community.

Pablo Guzmán explains that there are approximately 700 community police, “and we have seen that the more we grow the more complex the organization becomes.” Now, he explains, “it’s no longer only about arresting criminals, or even just meting out justice and re-educating them, but rather going to the source of problems—we don’t resolve anything if we just sit around receiving police reports all day long, when what we should be attacking is the origin of these very reports, like alcoholism, unemployment, the breakup of families, lack of education, etc.” And that they are.

Currently they are working on community health promoters; for production, they are working on an integral development program. In terms of education, they are creating a communications team that hosts various workshops. The communities don’t reject management of government projects, but, Guzmán insists, “for this one does not need the State’s resources; if people are convinced of the need it is sure to to come out of that conviction.”

Their current relationship with the government, with everything against them and arrest warrants to boot, “is about not being confrontational, since we do not dispute their power. It is, simply, that we want them to let us do our work in peace.” Felicitas Martínez Solano was the first woman in the community police force. She is the regional coordinator, and she says that “women have been invisible these past 16 years.” It has not been easy to include them—but, she affirms, “it’s no longer the way it was.”

Cherán: “We’re not doing anything new”

Everyday life in the P’urhépecha community of Cherán radically changed after April 15th. That was the date when a town plagued by illegal logging, which has left almost nothing of its forests, decided to “begin defending itself once again.”

Cherán, just as much Ostula for the last two years, and the Guerrero Community Police for almost sixteen, decided to “put an end to the impunity and to take charge of defending the community,” in accordance with its traditional norms. “We’re not inventing anything new, we’re just reclaiming it,” maintains one of the coordinators of the four neighborhoods that make up the Mesete P’urhépecha community.

Almost five months have passed since the residents of Cherán decided, for all intents and purposes, to enclose themselves in their community. They installed barricades at all access points and at night close to 200 bonfires light up the night patrols for an entire town that watches out for itself. Like the Nahua community in Ostula, the weapons they carry are more symbolic than anything else: machetes, sticks, hatchets, and the occasional hunting shotgun.

On a night patrol on the hundredth day of what they call their “uprising”, the men, women and children stand at their guard posts. The smoking contents of pots of food and coffee are distributed amongst the guards. “The people are already beginning to get tired, but we are not stopping our organizing efforts. Now the challenges are bigger than when we started,” said another of the coordinators.

The movement began when, tired of their forests being threatened by secret logging, they decided to confront those who had been taking wood from the forest for three years. “We knocked on every institutional door and none of them opened for us, until we got tired and we set out to defend ourselves,” relates one comunera at her post.

The townspeople allege that “the loggers, armed to the teeth, come from Capacuaro, Tanaco, Rancho Casimiro, San Lorenzo, Huecato, Rancho Morelos and Rancho Seco, and until now they have destroyed in total more than 15 thousand hectares (80 percent of a 20 thousand hectare forest).”

After they took security into their own hands, crimes within the community went down 90 percent. They have not been able to end logging completely, but they have diminished it considerably. Similarly, in only three months they managed to lower the alcoholism rate in the community by more than 50 percent.

The ineffectiveness of state and federal security organs motivated them to organize themselves: “We can’t stay still waiting for the government’s handouts—that’s why we’re organizing,” they say in one of the offices of the Casa Comunal.

In these times, they affirm, “it’s not just criminal bands that you have to watch out for, but the political parties that want to come in here and divide us. They are another kind of invasion.” Because of this they have decided, like their comrades in Ostula, that “parties are not welcome here.”

Electoral propaganda is now banned. Neither cars nor houses can display the banners or decals of any political party, and if candidates try to enter “we consider it an act of provocation.”

The more than 20 thousand residents are in charge of the traditional patrol, but “it’s more of an internal than an external thing, as we cannot compete with the arms that organized crime brings.”

The community has had dry laws since the mobilization started, so one of the tasks of those doing rounds is to maintain order and reprimand or detain anyone who ingests alcoholic beverages: “If a compañero gets drunk and it’s the first time, we’ll grab them and exhort them to not do it. The second time we punish them with community service, such as cleaning the barricades or the bonfires. And the third time we obligate them to go to rehab and go through Alcoholics Anonymous. All of this by the asamblea’s decree”.

Time passes and the “government continues to be unresponsive to our demands. The Base of Mixed Operations that we asked them for hasn’t arrived because, they tell us, they don’t have the right field equipment. For them, government types, it’s more convenient for the problem to continue on like that. All they see are the political spoils for the next round of elections—but the community has decided that not even a smidgen of electoral process will be allowed in.”

For the time being, reforestation brigades have been organized to “begin regenerating the forest. We clean the ground to plant pines; ditches are also being dug to stop landslides”—all of this without government participation.

Here, as in the 65 communities of Guerrero and in the Nahua community of Ostula, the constituents of the traditional rounds are unpaid volunteers. Currently there are one hundred posts for internal security and another hundred for guarding the territory.

Regardless of what happens in the future, they say, “there’s no going back on the process we’ve initiated. We will never again hand over our safety and security to the government.”

This article was originally published by

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