Indigenous Self Determination Threatened in Michoacán

On January 4th, 2013 published an article titled “Self-Determination and Self Defense in Cherán, Michoacán” where we looked at the armed self defense struggle in that community against an organized crime cartel and the local narco-government. The strategy of armed self defense and the creation of autonomous self defense patrols is not new at all and can be found in 13 different states throughout Mexico. At the core of this community based self defense strategy are indigenous methods of self governance that pre-exist the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas.

Today indigenous communities throughout Mexico are continuing to push aside any form of official government authority on a local, state, and federal level and practicing traditional forms of self governance, which include a self defense component. This right is constitutionally protected in Mexico, and for this very reason more and more communities who had lost their traditions to conventional party politics, are now turning to self governance and armed self defense as a strategy to save their own lives in an ongoing war against both cartels and transnational corporate interests for their territory.

On February 24th, 2013 the communities of Tepalcatepec, Buena Vista, and La Ruana joined the list of communities from the state of Michoacan who have risen up in arms against organized crime and the narco-government in the region of “Tierra Caliente” (Hot Land). The 21st of May they were joined by the community of Coalcomán from the same region.

Community members from the entire state of Michoacán have faced extreme violence at the hands of at least 3 different narcotics cartels over several years. The situation had worsened over the last three years in the Tierra Caliente region where cartel thugs murdered, kidnapped, and tortured in order to charge protection money from everyone including tomato venders to major businessmen in the region. What finally pushed communities from the region over the edge was that organized crime thugs began raping women and young girls in the community. They would show up at homes and “borrow” wives and take young daughters hostage for several days and return them pregnant. In December of 2012, 11 middle school girls from Tepalcatepec were raped. Community members accuse the local state and federal government of being complicit and consistently turning a blind eye to all of the criminal activity. Community members would file official complaints, and would be found dead, along with their entire family the next morning with the complaint ripped to pieces on their front door step.

Community members from Buena Vista, Tepalcatepec, and la Ruana had to organize in complete clandestinity in the lead up to the uprising in the Tierra Caliente region. On February 24th of 2013 they staked out the homes of organized crime thugs in their communities and launched a simultaneous attack. The thugs were detained, and their weapons and vehicles confiscated. All of the detained were turned over to the Mexican Armu. The Army turned them over to federal police officials from the Attorney General’s office in Apatzingán, Michoacán. All of the thugs detained were released by midnight that night. This is where community members say they had confirmed their long suspected worst fear, that the system which is supposed to be in place to protect the community, was in fact working against the community. With the ongoing presence of the Citizens Self Defense Council the number of kidnappings and incidents of violence has dropped drastically. With the constant support from community members who have migrated to the United States and very little training and equipment, the self defense patrols have been able to defend themselves from ambushes from the cartels.

In early July 2013 an additional self defense group let its presence be known in the coastal-mountain region of Michoacán in a 400 person indigenous Nahua community named Aquila. By July 24th with the support of community members an armed self defense group there took over the town hall and the police head quarters and seized police weapons and vehicles, as community members in Cherán had done two years previous. The self defense group declared that local public officials were all complicit with the organized crime cartel, as had Cherán. While in Cherán the territorial dispute was fueled by the cartel and international logging interests, community members from Aquila have had an ongoing dispute with the cartel and also the Ternium mining company over the constant expansion of their iron ore mine and rights to compensation for community members. Many parties on opposing ends of the conflict, including government officials, blame the mine for the origin of the conflict in Aquila.

On August 14th, 2013 hundreds of Army troops and federal police officers erupted into the community of Aquila and detained 45 members of the self defense group. 40 of the detained were transferred to a special federal detention facility which specializes in organized crime, and 5 of the detained were released near Aquila in a place known as “La Placita” where organized crime thugs are known to have control. Some community members rescued the 5 detained who were released at “La Placita” before anything could happen to them, and then they were later detained again and have now been turned over to Michoacán state authorities.

The 17th of August 2013 an article from the Colombian magazine SEMANA began to circulate. The article alleged that in the name of the self defense groups in Michoacán Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde said: “Revolution has come to Mexico. We are very willing to make and national insurgent movement against everything that is happening, because if the government doesn’t figure out this situation, we will.” SEMANA magazine also emphatically declares that the self defense groups are in fact paramilitary organizations working for organized crime cartels.

According to statements from community members from the communities who are exercising their self defense, the only paramilitaries are the organized crime thugs who seek their own personal gain from illicit activity, and at the same time they secure the interests of transnational corporations who seek to exploit natural resources in the region.

That same date of August 17th, 9 executed bodies were found in Buenavista with a message allegedly implicating the self defense groups. The assassinated were unknown to anybody from the communities with self defense groups.

In the name of the self defense groups in Aguililla, Aquila, Chinicuila, Buenavista, La Ruana, Tepalcatepec, Cherán, los Reyes, y Uruapan Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde made an audio statement released by the youtube channel Grillonautas2 where in all the self defense groups categorically deny any involvement with the assassination of these 9 individuals. Dr. Mireles Valverde also states that at no moment have any of the self defense groups declared war against the army, federal police, or the state and federal government. He clarifies that they are angry, but that at no moment, have they declared a war as some media outlets have been spreading through social networks.

This state and federal persecution of the members from the self defense group in Aquila, and in particular the detention of 45 members, has alarmed the Citizens Self Defense Council from Tierra Caliente as well as the Community Council from Cherán who have released separate statements in support of the self defense group in Aquila and against the detention of their members. Included here is a scan of the official communique released by Cherán with regards to the current situation.


Cherán K’eri Statement


August 16, 2013

It is with great concern that we view the state and federal governments simulating attention to the problems of our Michoacán and our nation. Through their actions they are discrediting our nation’s three branches of government ––Executive, Legislative and Judicial –– by perpetrating cover-ups, nepotism, corruption, and even treason to the homeland in the interests of the transnational corporations and the mean interests of other countries. We now see the effects of huge neoliberal interests that foster the wearing down of social organization; the inducement of confrontation between brothers and sisters of the same blood; and the loss of consciousness in its purest sense, that of identity –– all in order to achieve their purpose: the super-exploitation of our natural and human resources.

In view of the above, we urge our brothers and sisters in our state and our country to collectively reflect on all this from the space in which you find yourselves, and furthermore, to develop strategies for re-defining our social condition, taking into account the adversities now imposed on us. The struggle must be undertaken from our own trenches, collectively and without power plays.

Respectfully yours,
Security Council of the Indigenous Community of Cherán K’eri

This article was put together by Simón Sedillo from communiqués from the different self defense groups, an interview with Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde a member of the Citizens Self Defense Council from Tepalcatepec, an interview with members from the self defense group in Aquila and the extensive help from Subversiones and Juan José Estrada Serafín who have both given ongoing coverage to the situation in Michoacán. All photos are the work of Juan José Estrada Serafín.


  1. I just attended a reading by Alfredo Corchado who is promoting his recent publication.
    He stated that the self-defense groups are funded by the cartels. He told a story of how women are going to the cartel leaders in their communities to report unfaithful or abusive husbands for the cartel leaders to “teach their husbands a lesson.” Also that cartels are building infrastructure in communities to gain favor from the people. There was also an ex-pat in the audience who lives 8 months of the year in Mazatlan who made the same statement to me.

  2. Hi Martha, thanks for writing. About the self-defense groups being funded by the cartels, we are saying the exact opposite. Certainly the cartels have worked that way in many places. They’ve even founded and funded paramilitary groups to terrorize the people, but these self defense groups we are talking about are something else entirely. They are autonomous groups seeking self determination.

    This is the first time I’ve heard the thing about women seeking assistance from cartel leaders to protect them from abusive husbands but it’s not too surprising since they can’t count on government agencies for any protection at all. Organized crime has always been known for its protection rackets, hasn’t it?

    And yes, for decades the cartels have built infrastructure and even schools in some of their areas of control –the infrastructure probably because they need it for business, the schools maybe for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people do respect and even worship drug lords for providing some things the government should guarantee. In the 1980’s, for example, Caro Quintero became a popular hero when he was rumored to have offered to pay the national debt that was driving the country deeper into poverty.

    One of Calderón’s big “contributions” under the supposed anti-drug war imported from the United States, was to put all the cartels in open warfare, which has brought untold levels of violence to the Mexican people. As is the case with other profit-driven corporations, it’s now becoming harder for them to put on a benevolent face, but they still try in some situations. Even so, their true ruthless nature eventually makes itself known, and people on the ground are getting organized to defend themselves and live the way they want to.


  3. Corchado is parroting Caballeros Templarios propaganda, and their political collaborators. It is shocking how US reporters fail to research the issue. Auto Defensa has been in action for decades, article 2 of the Mexican constitution grants them the right to self govern and police, (indigenous people only)article 10 gives them the right to bear arms. In 1993 Jalisco began their auto defense and within 1 month there was an eighty percentage reduction in crime and it continues to this day. Shame on Corchado. My guess is he has never step foot in this municipalities.

    In Michoacán there exists a temporary governor operating a temporary government which is corrupt to the core and sleeping with the scariest cartel in Mexico, Templarios. How close is government and CT? For starters the wives of the governor and “La Tuta”, the premier leader of CT, are sisters.

    When the Michoacán auto defensa groups began, CJNG cartel killed in the name of auto defense groups. Anyone who is educated on how cartels operate versus auto defense, will quickly recognize the difference in how they function and can distinguish easily between the two. Perhaps Corchado should either research or shut his mouth. Why doesn’t he go and interview with Dr. Mierles? Many for Mexico and the US have. He makes himself available. He is impressive.

    I will also say the comment about Calderon is inaccurate. He did not bring the violence. We kept the violence in check as much as possible. At the time of his presidency there was a dramatic shift upward in the number of cartels, enforcer groups, splinters and gangs. Everyone fighting for plazas-for their piece of the pie. The violence had to increase just based on sheer numbers of groups. And diversifications.

    There was a great article about “calderon was right”, it is about Michoacán and how Calderon got control of the state, his home state BTW, and how EPN lost control in 4 months. What Calderon did wrong was stick to his failed goal of capturing the capos, which he was good at, but taking down capos does little. These are businesses huge global business and like big business they plan for every eventuality. It is the middle layer of organizational structure that must be attacked to be affective. Corruption and apathy are the great destructive forces.

    So far EPN’s administration has over 14K killings through July. Higher than Calderon in any year total during his administration. EPN’s official number 10,500 still high, but other sources including Zeta Magazine states the 14k plus figure for 7 months

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