for Pedro and Trinidad
When I heard about the recovery of Nahua lands in Ostula, Michoacán on June 29, 2009, it struck me as one of the biggest things that’s happened in Mexico for a long time. I thought that if all the collectives, groups and individuals who want to change things could do just a small part of what they’ve done, the world would be a different place.
Last January I went to Xayakalan to understand more about how the community was able to take back their ancestral lands.
I had the great privilege of getting to know two compañeros who talked to me about what they’d done and how. They were there every day in the community guard defending their land, growing crops, building an autonomous community, and telling people the truth. Pedro was 33 years old, Trinidad (better known as Trompas), 73.
Pedro said there were earlier attempts to take back the lands, but that beginning in 2008, it was Trompas who began to go to one community after another to convince people that they couldn’t wait any longer, that it was time to go and get their ancestral lands back. Pedro stressed that the hardest part was overcoming the fear that paralyzed so many people. Trompas told me a lot more about the organizing process and stressed the importance of the Ostula Manifesto underscoring the rights of indigenous peoples to self defense. He also said there were almost 20 people killed and disappeared in Ostula, that in Xayakalan community there were constant threats from military, police, and paramilitary forces ––defenders of the interests of tourist, mining, and drug cartels that are eager to take over the territory.
On October 6, I heard that Pedro Leyva Domínguez had been killed, followed by news of the torture and murder of Trinidad de la Cruz Crisóstomo on December 6.
According to the Stop the War against Ostula Campaign, the two comrades had been threatened by narco-paramilitaries living in Xayakalan. On November 14, Trinidad was brutally beaten in the presence of community people with an AR-15 assault rifle by Prisciliano Corona Sánchez, El Chalano, with the complicity of Iturbide Alejo, El Turbinas, and Margarita Pérez, La Usurpadora. The same people are accused of being among those responsible for the torture and murder of Trinidad when he was forcibly taken out of a van in the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity Campaign on December 6. MPJD representatives were going with him to an Assembly in Ostula, where it was expected that people would reject a government proposal to concede half the recovered lands to the small land owners who had previously occupied them.
Impossible to measure the loss of compañeros like Pedro and Trinidad. Impossible to repair irreparable damage. But no one can ever erase what they did and what they stood for. As a small tribute to keep their flame burning for the struggles of today and those to come, I transcribed and translated Pedro’s testimony about the organizing process and land recovery in Xayakalan, presented at the III Mesoamerican Andean Conference held on September 28, 29 and 30 in Mexico City.
Testimony of Pedro Leyva— III Mesoamerican Andean Conference
Good morning, and greetings to all of you who have come from Bolivia, Perú, Venezuela, the Mapuche nation, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Mezcala, Guerrero, Cherán, and to the Conference organizers, whose vision and intelligence have made it possible to bring peoples together in this Conference.
For us, for me and my comrades, it’s a pleasure to be with you. We also find it very interesting to listen to your points of view. We also like to thank the organizers for your efforts and for inviting us to attend this gathering of peoples who have come together to share their wisdom.
Comrades, sisters, brothers, we’ve been in the line of fire, too. We’ve been in struggle right up until now, you might say, and we’re keeping on. We’re still doing battle. For us, the war is not over. We’re still fighting back against the people who are trampling all over us. We haven’t put down the gun. We still bear arms. We’re still struggling. We’re still defending ourselves.
And now that I hear what you have to say about your experiences, I’m happy to know that there are many comrades ready and willing to struggle.
June 29, 2009 is a crucial date for us. For a long time, around 700 or 800 hectares of our lands were in the hands of the small landowners of La Placita, Michoacán. They had sustained an invasion of our lands for 45 years. We were fighting against it through every legal means possible, such as government institutions like the Department of Agrarian Reform. We went to all kinds of institutions to ask for help in the peaceful recovery of our lands. But you know what? The government wasn’t interested. For the government, this is all a big joke. The government couldn’t care less.
Then later on, we saw that the same people had taken over more than a thousand hectares of our lands. There came a time when they were even dividing up lots and selling them so more people would come to live on the land, and this made things all the more complicated. But by then, our community was really divided by the political parties that exist in Mexico today.
The government strategy was always to keep us divided so that we would never get our lands back. And they were always sending people into our community with money to dole out to organizations that might rise up in defense of our lands, so as to disorganize disrupt them.
So how did it all begin? One compañero started it all. [His name was Trinidad de la Cruz Crisóstomo.] He said, “Hey neighbor, aren’t you going to defend the lands our ancestors left us? The lands they fought for and defended gun in hand? Do you mean to tell me that fear is going to keep us from going and getting them back? Those lands are calling to us. Our ancestral titles say that our lands aren’t for sale. There’s no expiration date. They don’t belong to anyone else. They’re in perfectly good shape”. So that’s how we started to go to one community after another to participate in their general assemblies. We went through a lot of humiliation when we showed up in small groups. We started out with one, two, three, four, five, or six people, and kept on from there. Then there were maybe twenty of us who went to the assemblies, and we were determined to explain the issue of our lands and communities being invaded by our enemies.
At the same time, we kept on trying to get the government to deal with the situation, but they didn’t pay us any attention. We had minutes of meetings and all kinds of documents. So every time a flunky from one of the agencies showed up, we knew he was only about spreading rumors and lies. And we told him so. We said, “You know what? You’d better not come here talking nonsense. Don’t try to trick us and don’t try to lead us on”.
And in the assemblies we were also subject to humiliation, and some said we were just a gang of troublemakers. But the only thing we were interested in was our struggle and our independence. So if they tried to humiliate us in the assemblies, we didn’t leave. They heaped criticism on us and even called us rabble- rousers. They said when it all came down, we would sell out, we would back down. But we said no. We said the lands belong to us and that our titles speak for themselves.
So that’s how we began to stand up. And we went back again and again. We also went to see the commission members and even the person who was in charge of taking care of boundary disputes. But he was all wrapped up in stuff that had to do with political parties and wasn’t dealing with our boundary issues at all.
Then we started winning over more and more people. There were some older men, about sixty or seventy years old, who were convinced we could never win and that it was a lost cause. They said the people hadn’t even been born yet who were going to take the Majahua lands back. Well, they were the Majahuas, but people called the territory in question La Canahuancera. Now it’s the new community named Xayakalan. That’s where I live.
So we began to organize more and more and more, and they started holding permanent assemblies. But they started using those permanent assemblies as a tactic against us, because they knew we couldn’t afford to constantly be attending. So that’s one way they tried to wear us down and make us weaker. They wanted us to gradually stop going to the assemblies so that we wouldn’t be there when somebody attacked us.
But you know what? I am so thankful. God is great. I don’t know where the money came from, but we had what we needed. Sometimes we walked all the way to the assembly, carrying our lunch with us. Or maybe we picked up some tacos along the way or ate cold tortillas with beans and eggs and chili, and off we went.
We had to make some progress. A struggle isn’t easy. It can be exhausting. But the more we showed up, the more people started to understand that it was necessary to recover our lands. The small land owners were giving away lots to people outside the community to step up the invasion of our lands.
By that time, we were getting better organized, and the General Assembly began to agree that the first thing we had to do was kick out the political parties. These parties weren’t of any use to us whatsoever. They were just used to divide and destroy us.
Somebody from the government would always show up with some boxes, some tiles, a kilo of beans, a kilo of rice, and they’d say, “you can survive on this.” But our lands were worth a lot more than that.
Then there came a time when people started saying in the General Assembly that we shouldn’t participate in the elections, and everybody finally agreed. We didn’t vote. That time we all joined forces on an issue.
On June 29, 2009, everybody met at the Duin community.
But by that time we had also made progress in our Assembly. People saw that we needed an offensive defense strategy. Then it was decided in the Assembly that we would set up our own community police force because we couldn’t depend on the municipal police or the state police or the Army. No, no way. They aren’t ours. They’re part of the government. So we decided we needed our own police force made up of volunteers who weren’t paid a salary, one where people participated because they really wanted to. It would be made up of men of struggle who would be sworn in before the Assembly and would be committed to their people, to their community. We decided we needed an attack force in order to put up strong resistance.
And people decided to set it up, thank goodness. At first there were around seven hundred members of the community police and the communal guard. The community police would be in charge of each village, but the guard was communal, as if it were part of a state or federal government. It was elected by the Assembly.
And for that, we didn’t go ask permission from the government. No. We set it up because we saw that it was necessary. We saw that we needed it for our own defense.
So by June 20, the police had already gone into the area. They had communications, but they weren’t very good. We were new at all this. We were also afraid. A lot of the comrades said, “They’re going to attack us by sea.” That’s because our community is on the coast that runs from Colima to Lázaro Cárdenas. From Manzanillo to Lázaro Cárdenas in the state of Michoacán. From Lázaro Cárdenas towards Maruata, I don’t know if any of you have been to Maruata. El Faro is near our community in the municipality of Aquila. That’s where our community is located.
Since we have a coastline and beaches, a lot of people said, “They’re going to come in in boats. They’re going to attack us that way. They’re going to bomb us and send in tanks. And it’s true there were paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and mafia types that were kidnapping and killing people. When we went into the territory we found mass graves. We found around 200 or 300 mass graves where they buried their victims. There were women there, and there was a lot of women’s underwear for girls around 15 or 16 years old. It was hell.
But that day when we got there, we sent in the community police first. Around 7 o’clock that evening, we met in Duin.
My dad [Santos Leyva] came up and said: “Son, get ready. The community needs you. Now we have to go after our lands. I don’t know who’ll be coming back.” There were five of us, and he said, “I’ve got five sons, but I don’t know how many will be coming back. Go home and tell your mother to pack you some lunches. Go byy some lighters, flashlights, and something for the rain. Bring your slingshots”. Don’t think those slingshots were for slinging stones. “And a knife or some kind of blade”. We were going into battle. We were new at it.
The community police were charging up their radios, too. They had them turned on all day, but then just at the moment when it was time for the battle to begin, the radios weren’t working. Oh well, there were a lot of details like that…
But we went in. We went in that day, and the small landowners were there in their houses, and they said, “Where are you going, Indians? It’s not crab season.” We told them we weren’t going crabbing, that we were going to get our lands. And they said, “You’re out of your minds.” But what they didn’t know was that we had already slipped around a thousand people in there. The rest couldn’t go in because the paramilitaries hired by the small landowners had put up a checkpoint at the entrance and were shooting at us with AR-15s andAK-47s. But you know what? I think they were shooting out of fear because all they did was graze one person on the forehead. The bullet didn’t even penetrate his head. It was as if it were diverted. I don’t know how, but thank goodness something happened. At that moment in a battle, you have to put yourself in God’s hands because you can’t just charge in for the hell of it. You have to have faith and say, “Lord, you know this is not in vain. It’s about our lands. We have to get them back. We have to rescue them.”
So that day we went in. We’d already decided to and when the attack began, there we were. I got inside with my brothers, and once we were in, all we heard were gunshots. And we were listening to the way the bullets flew and how they cut through the wind, and it’s as if my blood was asking when one was going to hit me or what time I’d start bleeding. But we had to be looking out to see what was going on, so as not to just be sitting there doing nothing, right?
So the comrades who couldn’t get in, around six thousand community people, set up roadblocks in the highway because the small landowners were on their way to the communities to wreak havoc. (There are 22 communities in our larger community.)
They said to themselves: All those indians are over there, so we’re going to go into their communities and rape their women and daughters and children. We hadn’t planned to set up roadblocks. In fact, we didn’t know anything about that tactic, but things just fell into place.
We set up a checkpoint in Xayakalan. They put up another one at the crossroads in Ostula and another in Duin. But that night, they dismantled the one outside Xayakalan and we were all by ourselves there on the land and we could hear the cars zooming by. We looked over there and saw that three or four well-equipped trucks were on their way.
But you know what? Nobody backed out. We went onto the land. And when we got there, the others just gave up and said they didn’t want any trouble. That’s what they said. “We don’t want any shit.” And we said, “It’s a whole new ballgame.”
So later on that night, it was June and the rainy season had begun. We were there on the land, and we agreed that nobody should make a fire because that would let them know where we were. The community police set up a security circle and said nobody could go outside the circle, because the person who did might end up as a corpse. So they said if you have to go to the bathroom, if you have to take a shit, just dig a hole in the beach and do it right there and bury your shit. You can even sleep on top of it. We weren’t on vacation. We were at war.”
Right then I realized my tacos were going bad, but what could I do? I had to eat them because we had to have something in our stomachs.
By then, the Duin roadblock was going strong. Our sisters, brothers and wives all got together in Duin and then they began to realize that something was happening.
“Hey, why are you coming back?
“Because we can’t get in. The gunfire’s too heavy.”
So everybody met up at Duin and the small landowners went there, too. We took them prisoner and put them in the jail we set up in Ostula. As I said, things were really coming together, thank goodness. Everything was going good, and we were respecting the prisoners’ rights. We didn’t treat them like animals they way they’ve often done to us, trying to humiliate us, stepping all over us, being offensive.
So the first day went by with no problem and the next day we made more contacts and started to negotiate with the government. They wanted us to come out, but we said, “If you want to negotiate, you’ll have to come inside the territory, into the site of the conflict.”
By then, the highway was totally under our control, too, and people started to search one car at a time. One car from the State Ministry of the Interior got by on the way to Colima, but they stopped it at the next checkpoint. The authorities were furious.
They took out their ID and said, “See here, we’re government officials. Look.”
And we said, “See here, this is our community government.”
“What do you mean community….”
“You know what? Get out of the car.”
So that time they had to obey the rules, when they usually just do as they please.
So that’s the way things went. And then Navy and Army officers came by. And we said to them: “You know what? We’re in the middle of a land struggle. Which side are you on? You’re supposed to defend our people and look out for our well-being and keep the peace here. But have you already sold out? Have you already got dirt on your face? Well, anyway, if you want to go in, go ahead. But you’re on your own. Anything that might happen from now on is your problem. ”
And they said, “You know what? We’d better go. We just came to look around and we’ll be on our way. We can see that everything’s just fine and that there’s no problem at all.”
From that time on, we started to suffer casualties. We started losing comrades. As of now, around 28. But I’ll stop here because my time’s up. Thank you.
Audios: Homenaje y solidaridad con Santa María Ostula (Gloria Muñoz Ramirez and Zósimo Camacho)
Video: Xayacalan: Autonomia y resistencia en Ostula, interview with Trinidad (2009, Notilibertas)
Video: Pedro Leyva at foro Cambio de Michoacán
This post is also available in: Spanish