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They took what was at hand and kicked out the cartels. Meet Mexican women from Cherán

Drug cartels, gangs that engage in illegal logging, corrupt politicians and police passivity. This was the everyday life of the Mexican town of Cherán, inhabited by the indigenous community of Purépecha. It was like that until 2011. Today the people of Cherán live on their own terms. All thanks to the women who took matters into their own hands at the right moment. Meet Mexican women from Cheran.

It was women who stood up

In 2011, an uprising broke out in Cherán. They were led by women who could no longer bear to see the inactivity of men. They made it clear – illegal logging must end immediately, and everyone responsible for violence and injustice must disappear from the city. From cartels to the mayor.

“It was women who rose up. And when those women told their husbands what was going on, they didn’t have the courage to face it. Still, women rose up. And then, the men followed” – tells the story of Adelaida Sánchez, who took part in the uprising. Currently, she is raising a child alone and is part of the local police. [1]

The Mexican region of Michoacán is one of the most dangerous areas of crime, corruption and inequality in the country. Mexico’s spiral of violence does not bypass even the smallest of cities such as Cherán. Murders, kidnappings, extortion, rape, robbery and illegal logging were met with inaction of the authorities, the police and men. Under the tacit approval of the authorities, cartels and gangs deprived Cherán of as much as 70% of forests and harassed the indigenous community. [2]

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“The talamontes [illegal loggers] would drive by in their trucks, laughing at us. It wasn’t safe to be out at night. It wasn’t safe to be in the forest…. Sometimes I went home and cried and cried” – says Josefina Estrada, grandmother and mother of 8 children, who took part in the uprising. [3]

What do drug cartels have to do with deforestation? Mexican cartels have been diversifying their business model for years. Striving for the highest possible profit, they try to take over and dominate every profitable branch of industry. Timber harvesting, which formed the basis of Cherán’s economy, is one of these. As the armed and illegal loggers approached the main water source, patience ran out. [4]

“We are going to finish with your forest and then carry on with your women,” quotes Enéndiro Santa Clara who heard the talamontes talks. “First the woods and then the women. Maybe that was why at the point we decided, as a women, to face the situation. We took arms there and then, with whatever we had,” says Adelaida. [5]

Cheran is a woman. And gets a second life

“Everyone in the streets was running around with machetes. […] Ladies were running around. They all covered their faces. You could hear people screaming, and the bells of the church just ringing out all the time” – says Melissa Fabian, who was then 13 years old. [6]

Cherán residents still remember the uprising as one of the scariest days of their lives. However, they have no doubts that it was the beginning of a new and better life.

“It makes me want to cry remembering that day. […] It was like a horror movie – but it was the best thing we could have done” – adds Margarita Romero, who organized the uprising. [7]

The uprising was a success and Cherán started all over again. Politicians and local businessmen were expelled from the city and people were sure they were guilty of cooperating with criminals.

“To defend ourselves, we had to change the whole system — out with the political parties, out with City Hall, out with the police and everything. […] We had to organize our own way of living to survive” – said Pedro Chavez, a teacher and community leader. [8]

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Political parties were quickly banned – this ban has been successfully used to this day. The access roads to the city have had checkpoints. Forests have also received special protection – they are protected by armed inhabitants till today. The police was disbanded and replaced with local police forces that were created by women from scratch, together with men. [9]

“I am a single mom. I have a son. And that’s what pushed me to keep on studying to get my degree. He was my biggest motivation to keep on chasing my dreams. That’s lovely, isn’t it? I was studying systems engineering. Liked it a lot. I still do. And I managed to finish my degree. 15 days later, I decided to join the Community Police Force” – says Adelaida. “We have to stop them and show people from our town that we, as women, can also do it. It’s not just for men. We can do the same things they do. We can also speak up. Same as them” – she adds. [10]

An experiment that had no right to succeed – yet!

Cherán’s struggle for self-government lasted three years. It has been argued before the courts that Mexican law provides for the possibility of granting autonomy to indigenous communities. According to UN figures, 15% of all Mexican residents are indigenous inhabitants. [11]

Mexican women from Cherán’s case went to the state’s Supreme Court. In 2014, the decision was made in favor of the inhabitants who were granted autonomy and the right to self-government. In this way, Mexico respected the will of its indigenous peoples, who were allowed to live according to their customs and traditions. [12]

How does Cherán work today? Political parties are still banned, the function of mayor has not been restored and a new city hall has not been created. There are no political slogans or election campaigns in Cherán. The city is divided into 4 parts, which are governed by local councils. The members of the assembly are selected from among 174 fires, the so-called fogatas. A city council was also created, made up of 3 representatives of each local assembly. Each of the 4 assemblies must include at least 1 woman. The system has been successfully operating for 7 years now. [13]

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What about crime – has it been combated? During the 7 years of autonomy of Cherán, only 9 murders have occurred, which in the scale of the Michoacán province is considered a miracle. Crime in Cherán has practically disappeared. For almost a decade, gangs and drug cartels have not returned, and thousands of new trees have been planted in the forests. The worst things that happen in Cherán are domestic violence and fights in the bar. [14]

“In Cheran, I feel safe because I can walk the streets at night, and I don’t fear that something’s going to happen” – says Melissa. [15]

Peace does not belong only to the elite. And it starts with social solidarity

The story of Mexican women from Cherán is unique on a scale of the country. Not only has it become an autonomous city, it is also mainly due to women. This is proof that a spiral of violence can only occur when it gets permission – especially from the state and corrupt authorities. In this inconspicuous Mexican town, it was the women who had the courage to say: basta!

Cherán has become an oasis of peace in an incredibly unstable neighborhood. Peace did not begin with the elite, but with the social solidarity that has enabled it to function until today.

“As long as there’s at least one person that wants to keep this up, we will all stand behind them. We all feel proud because we stopped something, and did something that none of the other communities dared to do” – says Melissa. [16]

Sources

[1, 5, 10] The Guardian, The Mexican women who kicked out the cartels – video,

[2, 14] Vice News, The Mexican Town That Kicked Out Politicians And Started Over

[3, 8, 13] Los Angeles Times, Patrick J. McDonnel, One Mexican town revolts against violence and corruption. Six years in, its experiment is working,

[4, 6, 7, 15, 16] BBC, Linda Pressly, Cheran: The town that threw out police, politicians and gangsters

[9] El País, Pablo Ferri, How a Mexican town cut illegal loggers down to size

[11] Reuters, Oscar Lopez, A town torn apart: Mexico’s indigenous communities fight for autonomy

[12] NBC News, After long fight for self-government, indigenous town of Cherán, Mexico ushers in new council.

Cover photo: Mexican women from Cheran in their city. Credit:  Fot. Eneas De Troya from Mexico City, México, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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