Tierra Caliente: The freedom we have now, we haven’t had in twelve years

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In the first days of February I was able to get a close-up view of some aspects of the people’s uprising against organized crime in the state of Michoacán. In a visit that took me through parts of Tierra Caliente, the Meseta P’urhépecha and the Sierra Madre del Sur with other independent media journalists from SubVersiones, it became clear that people live better in the towns freed from the control of the Knights Templar organized crime cartel and that the Citizen Self-Defense Councils, better known as the community police or simply self-defense groups, are going right ahead with their move to take over one community, town or city after another. At the barricades and in the towns, people were also enthusiastic about following their own agenda, regardless of whatever plans the State might have, and going on to organize People’s Councils like the ones formed in Chinicuila and Coalcomán so that people can make decisions about how they want to live from now on and avoid possible traps frequently pointed out by observers: becoming part of a paramilitarization strategy of the State, becoming yet another cartel, or ending up under the control of the Army or the Federal Police.

tiburon On the highways, we ran into a number of checkpoints of the army, federal police or self-defense groups, but with press passes we had no trouble in passing through by car or by bus. We didn’t see any burning trucks or cars and didn’t get caught in a narco-blockade, but we learned that atrocities were committed while we were there. There’s a heavy police presence in the cities and towns, so much so that in both Uruapan and Coalcomán entire hotels have been taken over and are being run by the police, and it’s almost impossible to walk down a sidewalk without running into a group of them. Their presence makes some people feel more secure. Not me.


“Cherán continues to be a reference point for everyone,” remarked a friend the day we got there. Although the formation of the community patrols called “rondas” under an autonomous indigenous council is somewhat different from the self-defense groups organized as a matter of survival in mestizo territory, the P’urhépecha experience in reclaiming ancient traditions, putting into practice the right to self-defense, and following the path of autonomy is invaluable to many groups.

The New Fire celebrated in Tarejero, Michoacán, on February 2 has been interpreted as an especially good omen for extending this experience in the year ahead, even though on the same day in Morelia, thousands of youth, with the blessing of the government, sang and shouted their support for the Knights Templar in a concert given by the Komander and “los de la A”.

cherato-banda The day of the New Fire we visited the P’urhépecha community of Cherato, where the Virgin of Candelaria was also honored. After eating some delicious home made mole and enjoying a local basketball tournament to the tune of live tropical music, a family was kind enough to invite us to a feast celebrating their daughter’s baptism, where we thoroughly appreciated their hospitality.

cherato-basquet Afterwards we went to a compañero’s home to talk about the situation there. He answered a question about the level of support among townspeople for the armed uprising with a single word: total.

He told us that several years ago the Knights Templar began to send young scouts to spy on people in Cherato, but at first there weren’t any open conflicts with them. People kept on growing avocado, maize and oatmeal although they no longer had many livestock due to the rustling that had gone on.

On January 21, 2013, the situation drastically changed. A group of men showed up in town to deliver a package of 22 envelopes to the person in charge of security, Roberto Serrano Cervantes. Each small farmer was supposed to put $2,000 pesos per productive hectare in an envelope, and Serrano would be responsible for returning the full envelopes to a designated person.

The community people got together and said to each other: “If we give them the money, we’ll never get rid of them. They’ll become the owners of our own lands.” Not a single person voted to accede to the extortion.

derecho-a-organizarse-cherato On the contrary, they decided to reactivate the tradition of the community patrol as Cherán had done, arming themselves with poles and machetes and the few rifles and shotguns at hand. In those days they received a lot of threats and the municipal police began to hang out with the young spies.

cherato-bloquean-carretera The highway was immediately blocked by the insurrect people of Cherato along with others from nearby towns including Cheratillo, 18 de marzo, Sicuicho and Orúscato. They demanded a meeting with Municipal President José Antonio Salas Valencia (National Action Party, PAN), who never showed up. In return, the demonstrators held several officials hostage for a few days to make sure the authorities would comply with their responsibilities, which they never did. Since then, they’ve organized other protests over the disappearance of Roberto Serrano, which have not resulted in any response whatsoever from any government authority or human rights commission.

When they gathered in the main plaza of the municipal headquarters of Los Reyes to demand the live presentation of Roberto on July 22, 2013, organized crime members and local police opened fire on the men, women and children, resulting in at least five deaths (some say many more) and dozens of people wounded.

Our friend told us that Cherato and surrounding P’urhépecha communities want to separate from Los Reyes and form their own municipality. As a way of protecting their community, they’ve set up entry and exit gates to control who comes in and goes out of town. The gates are closed at 9 o’clock at night and opened at 5 in the morning. Several teams of townspeople continue to guard the gates, as the community grapples with serious problems of lack of water, health care and education.

Los Reyes

Coming into Los Reyes from Uruapan, we passed through orchards and nurseries where avocado, lemon, zarzamora, guava and oranges flourish. We visited two of the barricades on the outskirts of town taken over by the community police at the end of January.

barricada1-los-reyes1 After inviting us to eat and offering us a refreshing coconut-pecan drink, one of the comrades explained in an interview:

“We came into Peribán last Monday and Los Reyes on Tuesday. People here were asking us to come in because they’d endured so many kidnappings, abuses and imposed fees. People were forced to work for the cartel and some of them were then killed and robbed of the money they’d made. . . Two of my brothers-in-law were kidnapped and I’ve had no news of them in three years. They took away two cousins and a friend of mine, too. They were eliminated and dumped here. And that’s why we’re fighting. ..We’ve all gone through things like this.” Day after day the kidnappings, beatings and rapes continue.

barricada-1-los-reyes3 “They really want to hurt us bad so people will be afraid and won’t support what we’re doing, but now, people don’t care if they die here. It’s better to die in battle than to have them come for you and make you suffer.”

barricada1-los-reyes4 He says the response of people in Los Reyes has been positive, that they’ve had a lot of support from the people there and from surrounding communities like Cherato, “where they don’t have many arms but come with their poles and machetes.” They know the experience of other towns freed by the community police like Tancítaro, Pareo, Buenavista, Los Fresnos, El Aguacate, where people are happier, enjoy more peace and calm, and even dare to have fiestas, whereas before, they were afraid to go out of their houses.

barricada2-los-reyes2 He says that many people who used to be with the Templars have changed sides and are now with them, a situation we observed in the barricades themselves, where at least thirty of the former lookouts are there under the watchful eye of the comrades just in case their “conversion” is more fleeting than they’d indicated.

The large majority were young although there were people of all ages, some wearing their rosaries and others with a silver Santa Muerte on their chests. Although we’d known of many cases where people were forced to work for the Templars due to threats they’d received, the guys we talked to at the second barricade told us they did it because they made a lot of money ––between 1200 and 1800 pesos every two weeks.

barricada2-los-reyes3 We learned that the community police still face the challenge of winning support from the people in the barrios of Los Reyes, precisely because all the job sources have been controlled by the Templars and now many people have no income.

barricada2-los-reyes1 And being well aware of the experience of other liberated towns where the Templars have returned time after time to try to retake them, everybody knows that these spaces aren’t automatically free of problems. They have to be defended.

Buenavista Tomatlán

You feel the heat in Tierra Caliente. As we got close to one of the first towns that rose up in arms, a comrade from the self-defense groups came onto our bus and asked us who we were and what we were doing there. We showed him our press passes and he gave us a smile of acknowledgement, saying, “Ah, SubVersiones? All right.”

En route, we admired the lemon groves and later learned that Buenavista produces more of this fruit than any other place in the country.

When we got to Buenavista we were able to meet with the Coordinator of the People’s Council, which is not part of the self-defense groups, but instead a council made up of unarmed citizens. On our way to a meeting place we learned about an important part of this town’s history: Last April 27, 40 pickups filled with Templars tried to retake the town at 5 o’clock in the morning, opening fire for 25 minutes on the houses of neighbors in the community of Pueblo Viejo just above Buenavista. After one machine-gun blast after another that seemed like an eternity, they were finally repelled by five comrades from the local self-defense group.

One of the first things we talked to the Coordinator about was the agreement signed on January 27 between the government and some spokesmen of the Citizen Self-Defense Councils. We had heard different opinions. Some people think it’s not a bad idea to force the government to make a public commitment to protect the people, that maybe this would take some heat off the self-defense groups. Others say it’s just a media stunt that will be impossible to enforce because few people will register and nobody is going to turn in their arms. Still others say that the pact can be thrown out and that it’s not inevitable for the community police to be part of the military forces of the State, a highly undesirable status.

The Coordinator commented that “the government wants to put out the fire” and that he thinks it would have been important to put the regularization proposal up for discussion in every town and community. He said that many important issues aren’t dealt with in the agreement, such as the political prisoners of La Ruana, Buenavista, Aguililla and Aquila. “They forget about these things,” he said, “but those of us who live with the people do not. The self-defense groups have a commitment to the people and those of us who don’t bear arms are also part of the process.”

The comrade said that contrary to popular opinion, the uprising took place in Buenavista on February 28, 2013, four days after the people first rose up in Tepalcatepec and La Ruana. That day, everyone was taken by surprise when a call was sent out to the townspeople to come to a meeting in the esplanade where a sound system was already set up.

autodefensa-buenavista-michoacan He described what happened: “We went along with all the people to see what was going on. There, they said, ‘We´re going to rise up in arms against organized crime.’ They called on people to go get their arms so that they could stand guard and join up with the self-defense group…People from La Ruana came to support the uprising…and there were also four or five Army trucks around the esplanade. That surprised me because ever so often, they try to disarm people but that day in Buenavista and in the other uprisings, they’ve been there to support them… As far as I could see, there were about ten people who had made a firm decision to rise up…another ten went to get their arms and joined in. Another five or six stood by to see if someone else might loan them a weapon… because that was the proposal, for anybody who didn’t want to stand guard to loan their arm to someone else or, if possible, to donate it…. Well, that was our experience. That’s what I observed.”

He added that on that very day, the municipal police left town, and so did the Templars.

Even so, since they’re right there on the border with Apatzingán, the cartel’s stronghold, the people of Buenavista have had a lot of threats in addition to the major attack previously mentioned.

expulsan-ejercito-de-buenavista They’ve also had confrontations with the Army. Just a few weeks ago on January 15, community police and civilians, furious over the recent killing of four people by the army in Atunez, confronted and expelled an army convoy of 100 troops from Buenavista. And last May 22, military forces picked up four young men from Buenavista and only let them go after the self-defense group held 22 soldiers hostage for several hours.

Rising up in arms has made it possible for townspeople to hold public meetings, something that had been dangerous under Templar control. The comrade explained that their members lived there in town and that many people saw them as the guardians of Michoacan who were there to protect people. Commanders from elsewhere had people stationed in Buenavista to engage in all their operations ––extortion, collection of imposed fees, kidnappings, and drug trafficking. It was dangerous to even say the name Knights Templar. They built a chapel here and another one in La Ruana to hold the statues of Nazario (Nazario Moreno, alias El Chayo, or “The Craziest One”, worshiped by many, founder of the La Familia cartel, supposedly killed by federal police but considered by many to be one of the top leaders of the Knights Templar).

Buenavista has adapted the idea of the Citizens Councils developed in Chinicuila, Coalcomán and Cherán. The Coordinator says that in May of 2013, twelve people were elected as part of an assembly and that there are now plans to add a representative from each neighborhood and have an equal number of men and women on the decision-making body. Meetings and training sessions are being held in the neighborhoods. They are working on several different proposals including one to assure an adequate supply of drinking water and another to organize a community radio. They have their own detailed security plan and think it is important for security to be under local control, as opposed to state or federal control. They argue that they are the ones who are most aware of the needs of the community and that they know the people very well, so they can tell who would be best suited to provide security and who wouldn’t. For these reasons, they insist that they should be in charge of planning reliable, preventive security for the well-being of the people.

For the Coordinator, being one with the people, living with the people, supporting the people, and taking action with the people is fundamental. He thinks it’s possible that some ex-spies might want to come back to be with their families, and if they want to be part of a self-defense group, it’s up to the Self-Defense Council whether to accept them or not. He says the defense councils have done a good job and will know what to do about that. The way he sees it, “If they told me someone who hadn’t killed or kidnapped anybody wanted to take our side, I’d rather he’d be shooting from this side to that, than from that side to this”.

In any case, even with all the contradictions left to be resolved, he feels that their town is something else entirely now. “The children can run in the streets. We can get together, hold meetings. There are people with arms, but not to attack us. The freedom we have now is something we haven’t had in twelve years”.

Originally published in Spanish at: http://subversiones.org/archivos/20140

This post is also available in: Spanish